D: Patrick Hughes / 118m
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung, Joachim de Almeida, Tine Joustra, Sam Hazeldine, Richard E. Grant
There are several moments during The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hollywood’s latest attempt at the mismatched buddy genre of action thrillers, when the movie’s humour seems to come on a little too strong, as if it’s fighting its way into the script and looking to be front and centre. More often than not it’s a moment of physical comedy, such as the extended scene where Ryan Reynolds’ triple-A rated protection agent, Michael Bryce, is sitting at an outdoor Amsterdam café complaining about the behaviour of Samuel L. Jackson’s veteran assassin, Darius Kincaid. While he vents, chaos erupts all around him, as everyone in the vicinity ducks for cover, and bullets fly indiscriminately. The barman cowers, Bryce keeps on complaining, and eventually a car plows through the tables behind him. On the surface, it’s a funny scene, with Reynolds’ deadpan expression the counterpoint for all the mayhem going on behind him. But watch it a second time and the humour isn’t there anymore. Now it’s a technically clever scene that relies entirely on Reynolds’ performance. Watch it a third time, and it’s a scene to be endured. Should a scene like that provoke such a response so quickly? If it’s really that funny, then the answer is No.
For much of the rest of the movie, the script’s attempts at levity only serve to highlight just how uneven the material truly is. The humour is largely forced, the action is perfunctory (a chase along the canals in Amsterdam should see Kincaid’s commandeered boat reduced to splinters, or the involvement of at least one Dutch police car), and the basic plot is ludicrous before it’s even begun: Gary Oldman’s brutal Belarussian dictator, Dukhovich, on trial at the Hague for being a brutal Belarussian dictator, can only be brought to justice by the testimony of Jackson’s veteran assassin. Cue a race against time from Manchester, England to said trial, with the usual hundreds of disposable bad guys trying to stop Bryce and Kincaid from getting there. Along the way, Bryce’s back story takes up more and more time but never becomes interesting enough to warrant it (he’s still sulking over the death of a client under his protection, though technically the circumstances mean It doesn’t count), while Kincaid is ratting on Dukhovich as a way of getting his wife, Sonia (Hayek), out of jail (yes, folks, he’s doing it for love, the old softie).
It all plays out predictably enough, with supporting characters straight out of Stock City, including Yung’s Interpol agent, Amelia Roussel, who just happens to be Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, and de Almeida’s shifty Interpol boss who may well be in cahoots with Dukhovich (what are the odds?). No matter how much Tom O’Connor’s script tries to instil proceedings with freshness and vitality, the banal nature of the material as a whole brings those attempts crashing down like Redwoods. In the director’s chair, Hughes, who made more out of The Expendables 3 (2014) than was required, has no option but to go with the flow and let his stars do the heavy lifting. As long as he can get them from A to B, Hughes’s work is done, and often before the end of a scene. Others, but particularly those that feature Hayek’s apoplectic performance as Sonia, don’t appear to have had Hughes’ involvement at all. (Sonia looks and sounds like a character brought in from another movie altogether.) By the time we reach the end and justice is done, it’s become possibly the most generic action movie of the year.
But what of the chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson? Surely that’s in the movie’s favour? Well, strangely enough, the pair work better when they’re apart. Reynolds’ lovelorn, soppy-headed protection agent is like a man-child dropped into a war zone, while Jackson – well, Jackson trots out the same hard-headed “motherfucker”-spouting character he’s been portraying ever since the word was invented. Cue angry stare, mad-as-hell stare, glary stare, and angry mad-as-hell glary stare, all of them trotted out at regular points in the movie, and almost as if they qualify as their own action beats. Jackson is seriously wasted here, and not in a good, been-to-Amsterdam-for-some-of-them-chocolate-brownies kind of way either. When they’re together, Reynolds and Jackson spar like an old married couple, an old tired married couple who can no longer stand each other. Oldman grabs his pay cheque with both hands and hams it up accordingly, while the rest of the cast do their best to get through all the absurdity and nonsense with their dignity intact.
All of this indolence and protracted inertia – Bryce and Kincaid have twenty-four hours to get to the Hague but it feels like they’re taking twice as long – allied to the kind of comedy that comes pre-marked as “strained” is all the more dispiriting when you realise that O’Connor’s script was another Black List screenplay, this time from 2011. But back then it didn’t have any comedy. Instead it was a straight drama. But a few weeks before filming began, a two-week rewrite meant less drama and more comedy. And now we have the end result: a poorly assembled collection of scenes that hint constantly at what might have been. Maybe one day the movie will be remade with its original format, but until then this is all we have. It’s just that overall, it’s not enough.
Rating: 4/10 – an idea that probably looked great on paper – Reynolds! Jackson! Comedy! Action! – The Hitman’s Bodyguard translates into something that never takes full advantage of its basic premise, and chugs along quite amiably without ever doing anything to reward the viewer for their patience; with a cast that should have known better, it’s a movie that quickly fades from the memory soon after it’s watched – so it gets something right at least.
D: Kevin Reynolds / 119m
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Collins Jr (as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), Tony Plana, Karina Arroyave, Lobo Sebastian, Jack Kehler, Jonah Rooney, Demetrius Navarro, Richard Riehle
If you were a regular moviegoer in the mid- to late-Nineties then you’ll remember there was a spate of inspirational movies that revolved around teachers going into difficult schools and classrooms and making an impact on the lives of their – up ’til then at least – rowdy and supposedly unreachable pupils. In 1995 we had both Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mr. Holland’s Opus with Richard Dreyfuss. 1997 also saw Good Will Hunting, with Robin Williams mentoring Matt Damon’s maths prodigy. And 1999 gave us Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. All of these movies had one thing in common: they pitted a committed individual against both institutional and cultural apathy within the US education system. But in amongst all those valiant portrayals and feelgood endings, one movie took an opposite stance. (Can you guess which one?)
Trevor Garfield (Jackson) is a science teacher working at a Brooklyn high school. One of the students in his class stabs him repeatedly with a shiv after being given a failing grade. Fifteen months later, and Garfield is living in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, and working as a substitute teacher. He gets a call to sub at John Quincy Adams High School for four days. Day one is something of a disaster. He starts off in the wrong classroom, and when he’s in the right one he finds himself having to deal with a disrespectful student called Benny Chacón (Sebastian). Benny is the leader of a local Chicano gang that go by the name K.O.S. (Kappin’ Off Suckers). When another teacher, Ellen Henry (Rowan), tells Garfield that Benny has threatened her in the past, Garfield is sympathetic but doesn’t have any answers for her.
Garfield’s time at the school is extended, and Benny disappears. Garfield and Ellen start seeing each other, and things seem to be settling down until Garfield’s watch is stolen during a class. Knowing that the new leader of K.O.S., César Sanchez (Collins Jr), is responsible, he reports it to the school principal (Plana). The principal appears more concerned with avoiding any potential law suits than investigating or backing up Garfield’s claim, and Garfield has to take matters into his own hands in order to get his watch back. This sets in motion a war of attrition between Garfield and Sanchez that is brought to a halt when Sanchez is attacked one night and one of his fingers is cut off. Knowing that Garfield is responsible but unable to prove it to the police, it’s only a matter of time before Sanchez decides to get even with Garfield. However their home invasion-cum-execution plan doesn’t go exactly the way they planned…
At the end of One Eight Seven, a caption advises the viewer that “a teacher wrote this movie”. If it’s meant to convey a truthfulness to the events depicted in the movie then it misses that particular mark by a wide, country mile. There’s little about this movie that makes any sense, and even less that appears credible. Narrative problems begin to make themselves known in the opening scenes, with Jackson’s earnest and more than a little worried Garfield talking to a superior, Walter (Riehle), about the death threat he’s received from a student. Walter behaves like an ass, and refuses to take the threat seriously. It’s an unlikely scene, and while it’s there to make a point that will become more relevant later on, it’s astonishingly clumsy. And it’s the first moment where the movie takes the viewer by the hand and lays everything out for them as if their ability to grasp the criticism that the schools system is managed by incompetent administrators is beyond them.
From then on, Scott Yagemann’s screenplay does its best to tick all the boxes relating to school-based clichés, and even throws in the talented student who lacks confidence/is bullied or abused (or both) (Arroyave), and who Garfield takes under his wing (he also agrees to tutor her at his home unsupervised, something that no teacher in his or her right mind would contemplate; more cynically, it’s an excuse for Arroyave to be shown naked). Equally problematic is the relationship that develops between Garfield and Ellen. On the one hand it’s yet another mixed race semi-romance that won’t go anywhere (they’re only allowed to kiss in this movie), and on the other, Ellen is there solely as the Voice of Reason, the one character who will remind audiences that vigilantism is a bad thing, and all while the movie promotes the opposite.
Because at its core, One Eight Seven isn’t about the schools system being in crisis, or how teachers are increasingly under threats of violence from alienated pupils. Instead it’s a movie taking a very provocative and very conservative stance. It’s saying, if you’re a teacher and you can’t get through to certain pupils because they aren’t responding to your teaching methods, then it’s okay to maim or kill them (the movie does try to make it seem as if Garfield’s innocent of harming Benny and Sanchez, but it’s too obvious that he’s not). It’s hard to believe that this is a recommendation being made by a former teacher (Yagemann worked for over seven years in the Los Angeles public schools system), but even if you dismiss it as a form of artistic licence, it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and one that director Kevin Reynolds seems unaware of. Though not exactly known for making “message movies”, Reynolds still seems way out of his depth here, and the movie lacks consistency, with many scenes failing to engage the viewer or advance the plot.
For the most part the performances are adequate, with Jackson building up to the kind of vocal pyrotechnics that are expected of him even more these days, and Heard underused as usual as a fellow teacher who takes a concealed firearm to work (this isn’t challenged either; is Yagemann saying this is normal, or even okay?). Rowan has little to do beyond acting as a bundle of nerves, Plana is only required to behave obsequiously in a couple of scenes, and Arroyave is the Dangerous Minds alumni with a bigger, yet cruelly underwritten role. Only Collins Jr, for whom this was a break-out role and a break-out movie, injects any real passion or commitment into his portrayal, and his is the one performance that offers anything more than what seems to have been in the script.
Rating: 4/10 – flawed, and taking a reactionary stance that it tries to be ambivalent about, One Eight Seven crosses a line early on and never looks back to see if it should have crossed it in the first place; uninspired and leaden for long stretches, it’s a movie with an unpalatable message, and no idea (or intention) of providing a balanced viewpoint that might allow the audience to entertain any doubts about the issues under discussion. (8/31)
D: Raoul Peck / 93m
With: Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin (archive footage)
In 1957, the writer, visionary, poet and humanist James Baldwin returned to the US having spent the last nine years living in Paris, France. He was thirty-three. Soon he was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, and was touring the South giving lectures on his views on racial inequality. In six short years he had become such a well known supporter of the movement that his writings and speeches on the matter were listened to with respect on both sides of the debate. His views on the Civil Rights movement, and his ability to see the issue from both sides, arose out of his seeing first hand the effects of integration, along with his relationships with the leading players of the time. In 1979, Baldwin committed to write a book about America based on the lives of his three friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. He wrote just thirty pages of notes before abandoning the project, which he’d entitled Remember This House. It’s these notes, and a collection of interviews and speeches given by Baldwin over the years, as well as contemporary footage and clips from the movies, that have been brought together to form I Am Not Your Negro.
Baldwin was a natural thinker and orator, precise in his arguments and astute in his observations, and there are many moments in the movie where those attributes are given their due. An appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 sees Baldwin express his concerns for the future of the US (while an entirely uncomfortable Cavett looks as if he can’t wait for the interview to be over). It’s a short excerpt, but it shows just how much consideration Baldwin had given to the idea that things were improving for the black man in America, something that clearly worried him. His answer is far from comforting, and in many ways, is a foreshadowing of events to come, such as the Rodney King incident, or the Black Panthers. The movie expressly and explicitly reveals Baldwin’s thoughts on these matters, and particularly the way in which he felt that politics and the media were attempting to reassure the American public that progress was being made, when in truth it was stalled, held up at a point when progress could and should have been made. He was an optimist, but a realist too, and as a result his views could appear pessimistic, but Baldwin would have denied this. He’s telling his truth as he sees it, and he wants everyone to make up their own minds about the necessity for racial violence and intolerance.
Baldwin’s observations are supported by archival footage that goes back to the pre-War era, where his disdain for actors such as Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit – who essayed stereotypical black characters in movies in the Thirties and Forties – helped to enforce his beliefs about America’s racist, institutional characteristics, and the difficulty of getting an entire culture to change its way of thinking. The movie sees Baldwin chipping away at that sort of intransigence, asking uncomfortable questions, making uncomfortable statements (he refers to Gary Cooper and Doris Day as “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen”), and challenging the average white man to ask himself why he feels so threatened by the presence of the black man.
But the main focus is on the lives of his friends, three martyrs to the cause who died for their beliefs, and who in their different ways, were committed to overthrowing the institutional racism that permeated the US during the first half of the 20th century (and long before), and which they sought to eradicate through their efforts. Their methods were different, their personalities were different, but their goal was the same, and Baldwin is their chronicler, a self-confessed witness to a time when change seemed inevitable, and where Evers’ activism, King Jr’s passive ministrations, and Malcolm X’s angry dissention caused such waves amongst the white establishment that their deaths seemed almost inevitable. Baldwin’s anguish at each man’s death is relayed through his thoughts at the time, and they are poignant, studied and powerful, brief meditations on the nature of loss and the repercussions that followed. But through it all, Baldwin’s composure and his awareness of the continuing struggle ensures he has no time to be maudlin.
In assembling the various strands needed to paint such a vivid portrait of a man and his times, director Raoul Peck has succeeded in drawing together these various strands in such a judicious way that they both highlight and underline the points Baldwin makes, and reaffirm just how acute his intellect was. He was a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentator on a period of civil upheaval that is still being dissected even today, and Peck has chosen fittingly in terms of Baldwin’s presence in front of the cameras. There must have been occasions when Baldwin was more loquacious than subdued, but if he was, Peck hasn’t included those moments, and the man’s measured, heedful expressions of dismay and apprehension are given their due, and backed by archival footage that is both relevant and, on occasion, deliberately shocking. The movie paints a portrait of a time when the hopes of millions of black Americans were routinely sabotaged by the efforts of a white majority savagely defending itself from censure, and its condemnation of those tactics is absolute. And still it celebrates the resilience of the men and women who fought to improve their place and their standing in America.
Baldwin’s off-camera musings and thoughts are more than adequately expressed by Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s a measure of Jackson’s skill as a voice actor that he’s not always recognisable as Samuel L. Jackson. He doesn’t attempt to sound like Baldwin, but he does offer a knowing detachment when reciting Baldwin’s comments about himself. These comments are often full of self-doubt and muted reflection, something that gives the audience the sense that no matter how eloquent he might have been in print or on camera, Baldwin was as readily unsure of himself as anyone else might be. One thing the movie isn’t though, is unsure of itself, and it moves confidently between Baldwin’s observations on America’s tolerance for racial lassitude, and a broader history of the struggle for civil rights. It makes a number of salient points, acts as a primer for the issues involved, and serves as a reminder that the fight for equality still goes on today, and is just as important as ever.
Rating: 9/10 – a powerful and emotive subject as seen through the eyes of one of its most shrewd and capable observers, I Am Not Your Negro is an expertly assembled chronicle of a period in recent American history whose ramifications are still being felt today; succinct and incisive, Baldwin’s prose and oratory act as an entry point for a topic that can be explored in so many different ways, but what can’t be ignored is how much of what he says and reveals seems so obvious now to those of us looking back.
It’s been five years since the directing/writing team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal brought us Zero Dark Thirty – and it’s about time they had something new for us. Thankfully, the trailer for Detroit looks as if they’re not going to let us down. A stinging, emotive, and visceral look at the 12th Street riot that occurred in July 1967 following events that took place at the Algiers Motel, the movie has already come under fire for not including any black women in its main cast. It’s a little early to tell if this is a deliberate piece of revisionism, but what is clear from the glimpses of violence seen in the trailer is that Bigelow has captured the atmosphere and the grim inevitability of a situation that quickly spiralled out of control and left three men dead, and nine others brutally injured. Bigelow has also assembled a great cast, including John Boyega as a security guard who gets caught up in the riot, Jack Reynor, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, and in what could be the role that catapults him to well-deserved stardom, Will Poulter as one of the three cops who ended up on trial for murder. One of the must-see movies of 2017, Detroit has all the potential to be an impassioned and excoriating feature that will leave audiences stunned and impressed in equal measure when it’s released in August.
Samuel L. Jackson is the hitman. Ryan Reynolds is the bodyguard. Gary Oldman is the dictator both men team up to defeat. The tone of the movie? Well, you only have to see the poster for The Hitman’s Bodyguard to work that one out: a parody of The Bodyguard (1992) with Reynolds subbing for Kevin Costner, and Jackson for Whitney Houston. The trailer drives the idea home with what is obviously a deliberate lack of subtlety, and though Tom O’Connor’s screenplay was included in the 2011 Black List of unproduced scripts, this looks likely to be an action comedy that is big on action set-pieces, but short on actual laughs (though Reynolds’ comment that Jackson’s character has ruined the word “motherfucker” has an ironic touch to it that bodes well). However it turns out, and the trailer’s mix of shouty humour, action beats and Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote-style stuntwork doesn’t seem to say “instant classic”, this could still be the kind of dumb “Saturday-night-with-beers-and-a-pizza” movie that gains a loyal fanbase, and becomes a bona fide guilty pleasure in years to come.
After the success of John Wick (2014), it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a distaff version of that movie (literally) hitting our screens. And so we have Atomic Blonde, an adaptation of Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City (the movie’s original title), and starring Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent tasked with retrieving a list of double agents being smuggled into the West prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The John Wick connection is cemented by David Leitch being in the director’s chair, and the trailer showcases a scene that has Theron taking out a roomful of assailants in much the same style as Wick. Whether there will be too many similarities between the two movies remains to be seen, and if there are it may hurt Atomic Blonde‘s chances with the critics, but if its sense of humour is as acerbic as its action sequences are full-on kinetic, then the movie has a chance of connecting with a wider, more appreciative audience. The presence of Sofia Boutella as a French operative Theron’s character “makes contact with”, plus James McAvoy as her operational ally in Berlin, and John Goodman as a less than friendly CIA agent, adds lustre to the movie, and the trailer can’t help but give potential audiences the impression that this may well turn out to be a very, very fun ride indeed.
Action, Adventure, Alistair Sim, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Bette Davis, Brie Larson, Charlie Day, Collide, Comedy, Crime, Documentary, Dougray Scott, Drama, Eran Creevy, Eugenio Ercolani, Felicity Jones, Fist Fight, Gordon Harker, Guiliano Emanuele, Horror, I.T., Ice Cube, Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It, Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday, James Cagney, James Frecheville, Jimmy the Gent, John Moore, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island, Michael Curtiz, Mystery, Nicholas Hoult, Omega Rising: Remembering Joe D'Amato, Pierce Brosnan, Review, Richie Keen, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Barker, The Rezort, Tom Hiddleston, Walter Forde, Zombies
Fist Fight (2017) / D: Richie Keen / 91m
Cast: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, Dennis Haysbert, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Alexa Nisenson
Rating: 3/10 – meh; lame on levels you wouldn’t have thought possible (Bell’s character wants to have sex with a pupil – and doesn’t think it’s wrong), Fist Fight is a virtually laugh-free exercise that wastes the time of everyone concerned, and its unsuspecting audience.
I.T. (2016) / D: John Moore / 95m
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, James Frecheville, Anna Friel, Stefanie Scott, Michael Nyqvist
Rating: 3/10 – meh; lame on levels you wouldn’t have thought possible (Brosnan’s character is a tech mogul who doesn’t know the first thing about the tech he’s promoting), I.T. is a virtually tension-free exercise that wastes the time of everyone concerned, and its unsuspecting audience.
Collide (2016) / D: Eran Creevy / 99m
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Marwan Kenzari, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Christian Rubeck, Erdal Yildiz, Clemens Schick, Johnny Palmiero
Rating: 6/10 – Hoult’s backpacker finds himself mixed up with rival gangsters Hopkins and Kingsley, and using his driving skills to stay one step ahead of both of them; the focus is squarely on the action, which is a good thing, as Collide‘s plot is as all over the place as the various cars Hoult throws about on German autobahns, but when it’s bad it’s Hopkins intoning “I’m the destroyer of worlds” bad.
Jimmy the Gent (1934) / D: Michael Curtiz / 67m
Cast: James Cagney, Bette Davis, Allen Jenkins, Alan Dinehart, Alice White, Arthur Hohl, Mayo Methot
Rating: 7/10 – in an effort to woo back his former secretary (Davis), Cagney’s brash racketeer attempts to put a classier spin on his finding “lost” heirs business, and finds himself mellowing when a case challenges his compromised ethics; worth watching just for the pairing of Cagney and Davis, Jimmy the Gent is a typically fast-paced, razor sharp romantic comedy that may seem predictable nowadays but is nevertheless a minor gem that is effortlessly entertaining.
Kong: Skull Island (2017) / D: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / 118m
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Richard Jenkins, Terry Notary
Rating: 5/10 – an expedition to a mysterious island in the Pacific yields dangers galore for its participants – Jackson’s crazed Army Colonel, Hiddleston’s ex-SAS captain, Larson’s anti-war photographer, Goodman’s duplicitous government official et al – not the least of which is an angry hundred-foot gorilla called Kong; while Kong: Skull Island may be visually arresting, and its action sequences pleasingly vivid, the lack of a decent plot and characters with any kind of inner life makes the movie yet another franchise-building letdown.
The Rezort (2015) / D: Steve Barker / 93m
Cast: Dougray Scott, Jessica De Gouw, Martin McCann, Elen Rhys, Claire Goose, Jassa Ahluwalia, Lawrence Walker
Rating: 4/10 – after a viral outbreak that turned its victims into flesh-hungry zombies is contained, an island resort opens that offers survivors the chance to hunt down and exterminate zombies with little or no risk of harm – but the resort is targeted from the inside and a group of holiday makers find themselves becoming the hunted; a strong idea that runs out of steam by the halfway mark, The Rezort leaves its cast stranded with a standard “run from this place to the next and look desperate” approach that drains the movie of any tension and makes it all look as generic as the next zombie movie.
Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (1939) / D: Walter Forde / 90m
Cast: Gordon Harker, Alistair Sim, Linden Travers, Wally Patch, Edward Chapman, Philip Leaver, Kynaston Reeves
Rating: 7/10 – a seaside holiday for Inspector Hornleigh (Harker) and his trusty sidekick, Sergeant Bingham (Sim), leads inevitably to a murder case involving an inheritance and a criminal outfit who target their victims with the unwitting aid of döppelgangers; the second of three movies featuring Harker’s irascible policeman and Sim’s less-than-sharp second-in-command, Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday is a simple, easy-going, undemanding bit of fun that manages to combine drama and comedy to good effect, and which still holds up nearly eighty years later.
Inspector Hornleigh Gets on It (1941) / D: Walter Forde / 87m
aka Mail Train
Cast: Gordon Harker, Alistair Sim, Phyllis Calvert, Edward Chapman, Charles Oliver, Raymond Huntley, Percy Walsh, David Horne
Rating: 7/10 – despite being sidelined from regular detective work through a stint investigating thefts at an army barracks, Hornleigh and Bingham find themselves on the trail of Fifth Columnists; the last in the short-lived series, Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It is as sprightly and entertaining as the previous two instalments, and allows Huntley to make this priceless observation: “One of them’s tall, bald, looks intelligent but isn’t. The other’s short, sour-faced, doesn’t look intelligent but is.”
Omega Rising: Remembering Joe D’Amato (2017) / D: Eugenio Ercolani, Guiliano Emanuele / 69m
With: Joe D’Amato (archive footage), Luigi Montefiori, Michele Soavi, Claudio Fragasso, Rossella Drudi, Antonio Tentori, Carlo Maria Cordio, Mark Thompson-Ashworth
Rating: 3/10 – Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato)’s career in movies is assessed by some of the people who worked with him closely when he first started out; at sixty-nine minutes, Omega Rising: Remembering Joe D’Amato is a documentary that feels like it lasts twice as long, thanks to Ercolani and Emanuele’s decision to let their interviewees ramble on at length (and usually about themselves instead of D’Amato), and a random assortment of clips that don’t always illustrate what’s being talked about.
50's sci-fi movie, A Perfect Man, Action, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ana Girardot, Barry Sonnenfeld, Cameron Mitchell, Cat, Cell, Chandler Riggs, Christopher Walken, Comedy, David Tomlinson, Devil's Crag, Diana Dors, Drama, Edward Kemmer, Eliminators (2016), Flight to Mars, Frances O'Connor, Giant from the Unknown, Hard Target 2, Horror, Hostile takeover, Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary, James Bobin, James Nunn, Jennifer Garner, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey, Lesley Selander, Literary adaptation, Marguerite Chapman, Mars, Maurice Elvey, Mercy (2014), Mia Wasikowska, Murder, Myanmar, Nine Lives, Peter Cornwell, Pierre Niney, Reviews, Rhona Mitra, Richard E. Cunha, Robert Knepper, Roel Reiné, Sally Fraser, Samuel L. Jackson, Scott Adkins, Sequel, Shirley Knight, Stephen King, The Mad Hatter, The Red Queen, Thriller, Tod Williams, Vargas, Wade Barrett, Wonderland, WWE Films, Yann Gozlan
Cell (2016) / D: Tod Williams / 98m
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Clark Sarullo, Ethan Andrew Casto, Owen Teague, Stacy Keach, Joshua Mikel
Rating: 4/10 – a mysterious cell phone signal turns people into crazed, zombie-like creatures, but one man (Cusack) is determined to find his son while society disintegrates around him; a Stephen King adaptation (and co-scripted by him), Cell is another reminder that his work rarely translates well to the screen, and this is no exception, being dramatically incoherent, a waste of its talented cast, and lumbered with an ending that makes absolutely no sense at all.
A Perfect Man (2015) / D: Yann Gozlan / 104m
Original title: Un homme idéal
Cast: Pierre Niney, Ana Girardot, André Marcon, Valéria Cavalli, Thibault Vinçon, Marc Barbé, Sacha Mijovic
Rating: 7/10 – aspiring author Mathieu Vasseur (Niney) isn’t getting anywhere until he finds an unpublished novel and claims it as his own, a move that leads to fame, fortune, blackmail, and ultimately, murder; a clever, twisty thriller that benefits from a splendidly nervous, anxious performance from Niney, A Perfect Man may have many familiar elements, but it’s a movie with a great deal of style, and it holds the attention in such a way that there are times when you won’t realise you’re holding your breath.
Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953) / D: Maurice Elvey / 80m
Cast: David Tomlinson, Diana Dors, Bonar Colleano, Sidney James, Diana Decker, Audrey Freeman, MacDonald Parke
Rating: 5/10 – returning to the UK with his new bride (Decker), US soldier Laurie Vining (Colleano) is horrified to learn that he may still be married to his first wife, glamour girl Candy (Dors), a situation that leads to his desperately trying to avoid his new bride – or anyone else – from finding out; a bedroom farce based on a successful stage play, Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary has dated somewhat, but for fans of the cast and this type of Fifties UK comedy, there’s much to enjoy, from the frantic mugging of Colleano and Tomlinson, Elvey’s efficient direction, and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Dors.
Eliminators (2016) / D: James Nunn / 94m
Cast: Scott Adkins, Wade Barrett, Daniel Caltagirone, James Cosmo, Ty Glaser, Olivia Mace, Lily Ann Stubbs
Rating: 3/10 – when a home invasion means his Witness Protection identity is compromised, ex-Federal Agent Martin Parker (Adkins) finds himself the target of a hitman (Barrett) and forced to go on the run; a WWE Films production shot on location in and around London, Eliminators is a bog-standard actioner that stretches credulity, invites disbelief, and warrants avoidance as it does its best to cram in as many dull action scenes as it can in ninety minutes, and serves as yet another reminder that being a WWE superstar doesn’t mean you can act.
Giant from the Unknown (1958) / D: Richard E. Cunha / 77m
aka The Diablo Giant; Giant from Devil’s Crag; Giant from Diablo Point
Cast: Edward Kemmer, Sally Fraser, Bob Steele, Morris Ankrum, Buddy Baer, Jolene Brand, Gary Crutcher, Billy Dix
Rating: 4/10 – animal mutilations and murder plague a small town – and that’s before a giant Spanish conquistador is released from suspended animation by a lightning bolt, and threatens both the town’s inhabitants and the research team trying to ascertain if the legend about him is true; not the best example of a Fifties “creature feature”, Giant from the Unknown takes so long to get going that it’s nearly over before it’s begun, features a raft of irritating performances, and is so flatly directed by Cunha that once the Giant is awakened, you can’t help but pray that he’s the first victim.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) / D: James Bobin / 113m
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Ed Speelers, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Barbara Windsor, Timothy Spall, Matt Vogel, Paul Whitehouse
Rating: 5/10 – Alice (Wasikowska) returns to Wonderland to save the Mad Hatter (Depp) from suicidal depression(!) and the attentions of Time (Cohen) and the Red Queen (Carter) who are working in tandem and holding the Hatter’s family hostage for no convincing reason you can think of; another sequel no one asked for (and nowhere near as successful as its predecessor), Alice Through the Looking Glass is ravishing to look at, boasts some fine visual effects, and a great performance by Cohen, but everything else is a mess: bloated, derivative, witless, and with yet another wasteful performance from Depp (who clearly can’t be bothered).
Hard Target 2 (2016) / D: Roel Reiné / 104m
Cast: Scott Adkins, Robert Knepper, Rhona Mitra, Temuera Morrison, Ann Truong, Adam Saunders, Jamie Timony, Peter Hardy
Rating: 4/10 – ex-MMA fighter Wes Baylor (Adkins) finds himself in Myanmar with one simple objective: reach the Thai border while he’s pursued by a motley group of “hunters” who are out to kill him; a movie that definitely comes under the heading of “another sequel no one asked for”, Hard Target 2 is betrayed by its low budget origins, a script that lurches from one unmemorable action scene to another, and Knepper’s one-note portrayal of the villain.
Nine Lives (2016) / D: Barry Sonnenfeld / 87m
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Walken, Robbie Amell, Malina Weissman, Cheryl Hines, Mark Consuelos, Talitha Bateman
Rating: 3/10 – businessman Tom Brand (Spacey) has no time for his wife (Garner) and daughter (Weissman), so what better way for him to learn the value of family (and some humility in the process) than by stranding his mind in the body of a cat?; the kind of inane, superficial comedy that Hollywood churns out with mindless regularity, Nine Lives gives Garfield 2 (2006) a run for its money in the stupid stakes, and hammers another nail into the coffin of Barry Sonnenfeld’s once-glorious career.
Flight to Mars (1951) / D: Lesley Selander / 72m
Cast: Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines, Lucille Barkley, Robert Barrat
Rating: 5/10 – the first manned flight to Mars gets there safely only to learn that the planet is inhabited, and by a human-like race that may or may not have an ulterior motive for helping them return to Earth; early-Fifties sci-fi hokum that throws in a tepid romance and some very, very short skirts for the female cast, Flight to Mars retains an odd charm – perhaps because of its naïve approach – that helps alleviate some of the more daffy moments the script insists on doling out.
Mercy (2014) / D: Peter Cornwell / 79m
Cast: Frances O’Connor, Shirley Knight, Chandler Riggs, Joel Courtney, Mark Duplass, Dylan McDermott, Amanda Walsh, Hana Hayes, Pepper Binkley
Rating: 4/10 – after a spell in a nursing home, Grandma Mercy (Knight) comes home to be looked after by her family – daughter Rebecca (O’Connor) and grandsons George (Riggs) and Buddy (Courtney) – but soon exhibits strange behaviour, behaviour that includes warning George that a supernatural force is coming to get him; adapted from the short story Gramma by Stephen King (yes, him again), Mercy aims for creepy and menacing, yet succeeds instead in being confused and uninspired, and with laboured direction and performances, a situation that devotees of King adaptations will appreciate, having been there many times before.
D: Tim Burton / 127m
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Finlay McMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Kim Dickens
Teenager Jake Portman (Butterfield) is very close to his grandfather, Abe (Stamp), who tells him stories of when he was a boy and lived on an island off the coast of Wales during the Second World War. Abe lived at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a place where children with paranormal abilities could live freely and without fear of persecution. In time, Abe had to leave, but he’s never forgotten his time there, and he’s told Jake many stories during the course of Jake’s growing up, but Jake has always believed them to be Abe’s version of fairy stories. But one day, Jake finds his grandfather’s body in the woods near Abe’s home; he’s been attacked and his eyes removed. With his last breath, Abe exhorts Jake to find “the bird, the loop and September 3, 1943”.
The discovery of a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe, added to advice given by Jake’s therapist (Janney), sees Jake and his dad, Franklin (O’Dowd), heading for Wales. They stay at the local inn, and soon, Jake is searching for the “peculiar” home. He finds it in ruins, the result of a direct hit by a German bomb on September 3, 1943. But while he marvels at confrmation of the home’s existence, several of the children Abe has told him about, make themselves known and draw Jake into their world. They travel through a “loop”, a part of time that has been folded in on itself and now re-plays the same day over and over: September 3, 1943. And Jake meets Miss Peregrine (Green) herself, the children’s guardian, called an Ymbryne, a bird able to take human form (and vice versa) and manipulate time.
Miss Peregrine wastes no time in welcoming Jake into the home, and he spends the evening there until he realises his father will be looking for him. He returns as quickly as he can, but not before Miss Peregrine shows him just how dangerous it is outside of her protection. Jake sees a hideous creature called a “Hollowgast” come for the children before Miss Peregrine dispatches it with a crossbow. From there stems a warning relating to Wights, former Peculiars who have been the unfortunate victims of an experiment to harness an Ymbryne’s power. One Wight in particular, Mr Barron (Jackson), has made it his mission to track down all the Ymbrynes and take their eyes. But while the way through the loop remains hidden, the children are safe… until Jake unwittingly leads Mr Barron right to them…
When author Ransom Riggs’ novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was first published in 2011, it was an unexpected success. Riggs’ tale of peculiar children with strange abilities and the evil creatures that hunt them was the first in a trilogy of novels that breathed new life into gothic fantasy. It was obvious that a movie version would be made, and who better to bring the novel to life than Tim Burton? His brand of weird humour and his visual stylings were perfect for Miss Peregrine…, and with a script courtesy of Jane Goldman (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Kingsman: The Secret Service), all the signs were good that the movie would be as dark and strange and captivating and exciting as the novel.
And for the most part it is. Ultimately, it’s the adaptation that doesn’t work entirely, with Goldman unable to pin down the main storyline, and fumbling with the subtext relating to humans as monsters during World War II (it’s no coincidence that Abe is a Polish Jew and a survivor of the ghetto, and that the hollowgasts’ name sounds like something else from World War II). With the main ingredients of Riggs’ tale broadened at first and then allowed to carry on broadening, the movie ends up being only half as rewarding as it could have been. Things begin well with Stamp’s genial yet firm Abe trying to keep Jake safe from the threat of the Wights and the Hollowgasts, but once Abe dies there’s an uneasy switch from Abe and Jake to Jake and Franklin, and their trip to Wales. Goldman rushes things along and soon Jake is getting to know the likes of Emma Bloom (Purnell), who is lighter than air and has to be weighted down; Millard Nullings (King), an invisible boy; and Olive Abroholos Elephanta (McCrostie) who can set things alight just by touching them.
It’s this stretch of the movie that is the most enjoyable, as Jake (and the viewer) gets to know everyone, and the idyllic, if repetitive, nature of the children’s existence is explored. There are terrific performances from all the child actors playing the Peculiar Children of the title, and a wonderful performance from Green as their guardian. With her probing stare and knowing smiles, Green is the movie’s ace in the hole, and the movie misses her energy whenever she’s off screen. Once things start to unravel and Mr. Barron gains the upper hand, the movie pauses to regroup itself, and heads for a crowd-pleasing finale at the end of Blackpool Pier that involves a riotous showdown between Hollowgasts and animated skeletons á la Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Along the way it abandons any notion of cohesion and continuity, and its attempts to make sense of the time loop/time travel conundrum the Peculiars and Jake find themselves in are brief and inconclusive (and baffling to anyone not paying full attention).
But while the script tries to work out how best to tell the story, and in doing so deviates from Riggs’ original halfway cliffhanger-ish ending, the movie is rescued by Burton and his striking visual compositions and the movie’s darkly exuberant set design and decoration. This is, at times, a sumptuous movie to watch, and Burton’s trademark gothic flair is well in evidence as he guides the viewer through a series of imaginative and impressive sequences that more than adequately show how good a fit for the material he is. But again, when the story has to take centre stage it’s often weak and lacking focus, though to be fair to Goldman she is trying to cram an awful lot into a two hour movie, and as good as she is as a screenwriter, when the source material is as detailed as it is, it’s unsurprising that some of the good stuff is going to be overlooked or a way for it all to fit in isn’t explored with any vigour.
Alongside Burton’s efforts, those of Green, Jackson, Stamp and Purnell are most welcome, with Jackson’s pantomime performance proving weirdly appropriate. Fans of the novel will be surprised to find that this is, unless a sequel is green-lit, a stand-alone movie with only a couple of nods to the book’s original ending. Does this work? The answer is impenetrable, either way. Fans and supporters of the novels will be disappointed that this isn’t the beginning of a series, and newcomers will most likely have wanted to spend more time getting to know all the peculiar’s; all in all, there’s something for everyone, just not as much for avid fans of the book.
Rating: 7/10 – with its script proving too wayward, and feeling like it was rushed (or hastily rewritten at some point prior to filming), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children entertains in fits and starts; and yet it’s hugely enjoyable when Goldman and Burton’s sensibilities meet in the middle, and there’s more than enough on display to justify the movie’s being seen by as many people as possible, so perhaps this is one adaptation where advance knowledge of the plot isn’t necessary… or desirable.
400 Days, Action, Africa, Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Crime, David Yates, Documentary, End of a Gun, Greg Kwedar, Historical drama, John Dower, Johnny Simmons, Keoni Waxman, Louis Theroux, Malin Buska, Margot Robbie, Matt Osterman, Michael Nyqvist, Mika Kaurismäki, Monthly roundup, My Scientology Movie, Queen Kristina of Sweden, Reviews, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Gadon, Sci-fi, Steven Seagal, The Girl King, The Legend of Tarzan, Thriller, Transpecos
The Legend of Tarzan / D: David Yates / 110m
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Chaplin
Rating: 3/10 – “meh”; woeful only just about covers how bad this movie is, from the wooden performances, to the haphazard scripting, to Yates’s casual engagement with the material, and all the way to the creaky use of CGI to simulate the African backgrounds – at no point does The Legend of Tarzan ever feel as if it has any intention of putting any real effort into things.
400 Days (2015) / D: Matt Osterman / 91m
Cast: Brandon Routh, Dane Cook, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, Tom Cavanagh, Grant Bowler, Dominic Bogart, Fernanda Romero, Sally Pressman, Mark Steger
Rating: 4/10 – four astronauts are locked inside a chamber designed to simulate the timescale of a planned mission, and the psychological effects of such a journey, but as the simulation nears its finish, the quartet find that things aren’t entirely what they seem; a mystery thriller that doesn’t need its sci-fi trappings (and where the mystery is unengaging), 400 Days plays out like an old Outer Limits episode but without the succinctness that show could provide, all of which leaves the viewer trying hard to make sense of what’s going on, and trying equally hard to decide whether or not they should be bothered about it all.
The Girl King (2015) / D: Mika Kaurismäki / 106m
Cast: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant, Laura Birn, Hippolyte Girardot, Peter Lohmeyer, François Arnaud, Patrick Bauchau
Rating: 5/10 – the story of Queen Kristina of Sweden (Buska), who in the ten years she ruled her country, did her best to bring enlightenment and peace for everyone, and who fought against her advisors’ insistence that she marry and secure her throne for the future; reminiscent of the Euro-pudding movies so prevalent in the late Seventies and throughout the Eighties, The Girl King lacks a coherent shooting style that isn’t helped by Hans Funck’s scattershot approach to the editing, but it does keep things admirably simple (if not too simple at times), and remains unexpectedly watchable thanks to Kaurismäki’s determined effort to convert Kristina’s reign (and her presumed lesbianism) into historical soap opera.
My Scientology Movie (2015) / D: John Dower / 99m
With: Louis Theroux, Marty Rathbun, Marc Headley, Tom De Vocht, Jeff Hawkins, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter
Rating: 7/10 – Louis Theroux, intrepid (and annoying) documentarian turns his attention onto Scientology, and attempts to understand why the organisation is so litigious and defensive about its practices; Theroux teams up with ex-Scientology bigwig Marty Rathbun to learn about what goes on behind the scenes, but succeeds largely in having childish spats with one of the organisation’s “security” team (very funny indeed), while organising a filmed representation of a meeting where Scientology leader David Miscavage threw a major tantrum, all of which leaves My Scientology Movie feeling arid for long stretches and not quite as illuminating as Theroux might have hoped.
Transpecos (2016) / D: Greg Kwedar / 86m
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, Clifton Collins Jr, Julio Oscar Mechoso
Rating: 5/10 – three Border Patrol guards find themselves in trouble with a Mexican cartel when they stop the wrong car at a checkpoint, and learn that one of them is in even deeper trouble than anyone knew; Transpecos makes good use of its New Mexico locations, and the opening twenty minutes point towards the movie being a tense, tightly constructed thriller, but sadly it soon degenerates into an unconvincing, meandering collection of scenes that are often dramatically inert, and which stretch the narrative in a variety of ineffective ways that it can’t recover from.
End of a Gun (2016) / D: Keoni Waxman / 87m
Cast: Steven Seagal, Florin Piersic Jr, Jade Ewen, Ovidiu Nicolescu, Jonathan Rosenthal, Alexandre Nguyen, Claudiu Bleont
Rating: 4/10 – retired DEA agent-cum-“ghost” Michael Decker (Seagal) rescues a stripper (Ewen) from her abusive boyfriend (by killing him) and finds himself helping her steal €2m of the man’s money – which doesn’t go down well with his drug czar boss; another Romanian-shot quickie from Seagal that keeps his stunt double, his running double, and his walking double in gainful employment, End of a Gun is made bearable thanks to a good performance from Piersic Jr, and Waxman’s ingenuity when shooting low-budget shootouts, but otherwise it’s business as usual, which is to say, pretty awful (and the less said about ex-Sugababes member Ewen, the better).
Forget the obvious question: why make another Ring movie? Instead, watch the trailer:
…and then ask yourself this very simple question:
Wouldn’t it be great if Samuel L. Jackson showed up and said, “I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHERF*CKING RINGS ON THIS MOTHERF*CKING PLANE!”?
(Or is it just me?)
Bounty hunter, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, Drama, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Minnie's Haberdashery, Mystery, Quentin Tarantino, Review, Samuel L. Jackson, Thriller, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Western, Wyoming
D: Quentin Tarantino / 167m
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum
It’s post-Civil War Wyoming, and a stagecoach trying to outrun a fast approaching snowstorm (in already treacherous weather) is stopped by an unexpected encounter with a bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), stranded on the road to the nearest safe haven, a staging post named Minnie’s Haberdashery. On board the stagecoach is another bounty hunter, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Leigh), heading for the town of Red Rock so she can face trial. Once bona fides are established between the two men, Warren is allowed to journey on aboard the stagecoach. Later they pick up another stranded man, Chris Mannix (Goggins), who tells them he’s also heading to Red Rock where he is to take up the post of sheriff.
At Minnie’s Haberdashery, they find that an earlier stagecoach has taken shelter there, and there are four men waiting out the impending snowstorm. One is a Southern general, Sanford Smithers (Dern), who’s come to Wyoming in search of his missing son. Another is Joe Gage (Madsen), a cowboy heading home after being away on a lengthy cattle trail. The third introduces himself as Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), on his way to Red Rock to act as hangman should Daisy Domergue be found guilty at her trial. And then there’s Bob (Bichir), a Mexican who tells Warren that Minnie and her husband, Sweet Dave, have gone to see her mother, and that they’ve entrusted the upkeep of the staging post to him. But Warren is unconvinced.
Once everyone is inside and introduced to each other, Ruth is quick to make it clear that he believes at least one person there isn’t who he says he is, and that it’s likely they’re going to try and free Daisy (though he doesn’t say why, or how he knows). Warren believes him, and they agree to join forces and keep an eye on the other men. But things begin to go wrong when Warren recognises Smithers, and he realises why the old man is there, and so far from home.
The eighth movie by Quentin Tarantino is ostensibly a Western, but thanks to its writer/director’s penchant for being a movie magpie, it’s also a thriller, a revenge drama, an old dark house-style mystery, and yet another movie where he assembles a great cast only to give preference to some – Jackson, Russell, Goggins – while neglecting others – Leigh, Bichir, Madsen. That Tarantino wants to stuff his movie with references to other movies has always been a part of his movie making raison d’être, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that The Hateful Eight isn’t just a Western. But this time around, the end result is a movie that struggles to find its identity, and thanks to the novel-style approach of Tarantino’s script – it’s made up of six Chapters – it feels much more artificial than it should be.
As Tarantino nudges along his characters in the wake of Jackson’s central character, and takes in issues of racism and post-War guilt, and a very occasional stab at the morality behind the execution of women, it becomes clear that these characters are mere cyphers, lacking in development and free from any real, appreciable insight into their motives. Given this lack of investment by Tarantino’s script, and despite the detailed and often hypnotic rhythms of the dialogue he grants them, it’s left to his very talented cast to make up the shortfall. Some achieve this with aplomb – Goggins in particular – but even the likes of Russell and Leigh can’t elevate the shallow nature of their characters. Russell bellows like an absurdist bully, while Leigh at one point is reduced to the kind of playground boasting that was outmoded even in the 1860’s.
Spare a thought then for Tarantino regular Jackson. Having landed the lead role in the movie, and been given the kind of back story that most actors would relish getting their hands on (or teeth into), it must have been dispiriting to see the final product and realise that for all the blood and thunder involved, it was all for nought given how the character is treated in the movie’s final chapter. There’s a lot to be said for a movie of this length when it exposes some of its maker’s more crueller narrative decisions and forces its audience to wonder if its wunderkind creator is quite the impressive writer/director he’s reputed to be. And this is where The Hateful Eight is most successful: in showing that the hype surrounding Tarantino isn’t always deserved.
Take one scene in particular, the beginning of Chapter Four, entitled Domergue’s Got a Secret. Unable to introduce a major plot development in any other way (apparently), Tarantino resorts to the use of an offscreen narrator (voiced by himself) who not only explains what Daisy’s secret is, but clearly signposts for those in the audience who may be hard of understanding, what this means in terms of what follows. It’s like someone stopping a theatre production of Macbeth and stepping forward to explain that when Shakespeare says Macbeth can’t be “killed by man born of woman” he actually means he can be killed by someone born via Caesarean. Got it? Then let’s move on.
From there on The Hateful Eight swiftly unravels in a welter of violence and bloodshed that throws out all the groundwork made to get this far, and concentrates instead on bumping off its cast of characters. But any fascination or sympathy the viewer may have had for anyone is eroded by Tarantino’s decision to go for a bloodbath rather than a tense showdown. And then there’s the final chapter, so awkward and clunkily written that the viewer can’t help but wonder if Tarantino didn’t know how to end his movie, and settled on the first thought that came to him – and then didn’t even bother to polish the finished script. For once, Tarantino relinquishes control over the material, and the camerawork by Robert Richardson – up til then one of the few consistent positives about the movie – is undermined by the kind of reckless scissor-happy editing that you’d expect from someone having to deal with far less filmed material and an impossible deadline (and the movie’s editor, Fred Raskin, is a much better editor than that – check out his work on another 2015 Western, Bone Tomahawk, for proof).
When all is said and done, The Hateful Eight isn’t a movie that works; at least, not entirely. If anything, the movie never proceeds to anywhere successful once Chris Mannix boards the stagecoach and they arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery. Up til then, Tarantino does what he does best: he introduces his characters through his trademark intricate dialogue, and he sets the scene for the rest of the movie. But once in Minnie’s Haberdashery, the plot has to take over, and it soon runs out of steam. The addition of a flashback in Chapter Five feels even more awkward than the revelation that Daisy has a secret, and makes scant use of Channing Tatum into the bargain.
And finally, as if to rub salt into the movie’s wounds, we have a score by Ennio Morricone that has no impact throughout, and isn’t in any way memorable (there are times when it doesn’t even feel suited to the material). When your favourite movie composer can’t even make a difference then you just know that it’s not going to work. Sometimes – and this applies to anyone who writes and directs their own movies, or who have carte blanche from the studio that writes the cheques – having an idea isn’t enough. And building on that idea isn’t enough. And writing a screenplay isn’t enough. Sometimes you just have to let an idea go. Often it’s the kindest thing you can do for everyone.
Rating: 6/10 – narrative glitches aside, Tarantino’s eighth movie proves lacklustre both in terms of its visuals and its attention to its characters, leaving the viewer without anyone to sympathise with or warm to; The Hateful Eight is also the first of the writer/director’s movies to feel incomplete in terms of his investment in the project, and while he may argue otherwise, there’s a distance between him and the final product that hasn’t been there in any of his other, seven movies.
D: Kyle Newman / 96m
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophie Turner, Jessica Alba, Dove Cameron, Toby Sebastian, Thomas Mann, Rachael Harris, Jaime King, Dan Fogler, Steve-O, Gabriel Basso, Rob Huebel, Jason Ian Drucker
Sixteen year old Agent 83 (Steinfeld) works for a top secret organisation called Prescott that adopts orphaned girls and trains them to be assassins. But she yearns for a more ordinary, regular life, glimpses of which she gets when on her missions. When a plan to capture wanted terrorist Victoria Knox (Alba) leaves Agent 83 missing presumed dead, she takes the opportunity to live a normal life. She changes her name to Megan Walsh, invents a back story for herself and enrols herself in a foreign student exchange programme that sees her living with the Larsons – mum (Harris), daughter Liz (Cameron), and son Parker (Drucker) – and attending high school.
Fitting in, though, proves harder than she’d imagined. Despite doing her research, Megan finds average life more demanding, and confusing, than anything she’s encountered before. With Liz wanting nothing to do with her, and her faux-Canadian background doing her no favours, it’s not until the intervention of high school heart-throb and teen singing sensation Cash Fenton (Sebastian) that Megan begins to be accepted. Megan develops an immediate crush on Cash, but she already has an admirer in tech-geek Roger Marcus (Mann). Having been tricked into applying for the role of football team mascot – and getting it – Megan gains true acceptance when she takes out three would-be kidnappers of the team mascot, a traditional prank foiled by Megan’s “special set of skills”.
The resulting video goes viral and leads to her being found by her instructor at Prescott, Hardman (Jackson). Along with fellow Prescott agent Pedro (Steve-O), Hardman interrogates Megan, believing she’s working for someone else. But when it becomes clear she just wants to lead a normal life, Hardman tells her she only has time to wrap things up before coming back to Prescott. Later, at a party where she’s looking forward to hooking up with Cash, she finds Agent 84 (Turner), aka Heather, in attendance. Annoyed that Hardman would use Heather to keep an eye on her, Megan is further annoyed when Heather makes a play for Cash.
Another meeting with Hardman reveals that Knox has escaped and will no doubt be looking to catch up with Megan and kill her. Despite his offer of protection if she comes back to Prescott, Megan refuses to leave her new home, and begins to take steps to ensure that the Larsons remain safe. And at the upcoming Homecoming dance, she hopes to finally land Cash as her boyfriend, though she has begun to have conflicting feelings for Roger. With all this going on, Megan has to fall back on her training in order to get through it all, and maintain her new lifestyle.
The idea of a teen assassin dealing with the pitfalls of high school is one that could have given new meaning to the phrase “mean girls”, but here it’s the starting point for an extremely lightweight, by-the-numbers movie that is pleasantly assembled, but astoundingly hollow at the same time. By bringing in such a talented cast, Barely Lethal (not the best pun for a movie, either), may give the interested viewer the impression that the movie is going to be better than it actually is. But in the hands of director Newman (whose previous feature, Fanboys (2009), was a surprise pleasure) and writer John D’Arco, the movie is one that struggles to maintain an even tone, and squanders many of its chances to layer its basic premise with appropriate levels of irony.
The movie makes no effort to avoid or subvert the standard tropes of high school movies, and instead embraces them wholeheartedly without doing anything new with them. This leaves the movie looking and feeling like any other generic high school movie and even the introduction of Megan and her special skill set doesn’t hamper or redefine it. This level of familiarity works against the movie and though Steinfeld et al. waltz through it all with confidence, for them it must have been like the acting equivalent of treading water. Even Jackson and Alba can’t do much with characters that scream “simple movie stereotype”. With every character and situation proving lacklustre as a result, the movie never really manages to take off and become as enjoyable as it should be.
The humour in the movie is also quite forced, from the youngest Prescott recruits being called “grandma” when their driving skills don’t come up to scratch, to Megan’s first day outfit, to creepy teacher Mr Drumm (Fogler) and his stalking of Cash, to Roger’s even creepier father (Huebel) whose conversation is almost entirely inappropriate – none of it is as funny as it probably seemed at the time of filming, and even with the best efforts of the cast. Newman’s direction doesn’t help either, as each development in the script is allowed to play out with little emphasis on the drama involved, or what reaction it provokes in the characters, and the humour doesn’t leaven things either.
As the girl who’s more comfortable deciphering weapons schematics than the pitfalls of high school life, Steinfeld is an engaging presence but settles for doing just enough to satisfy the demands of the script. The same is true of Turner, who pouts her way through the movie as Megan’s chief rival, and Alba, playing an impression of a caricature of a stereotype as the villainous Knox. Mann emerges relatively unscathed by the experience, and Jackson is predictably hard-nosed (but with a heart of gold), but by and large the performances are as blandly likeable as the material. And the whole thing is rounded off by the kind of soundtrack selections that attempt to mirror the on screen action for emotion but lack any real nuance.
Rating: 4/10 – a missed opportunity, Barely Lethal is so humdrum it should be called Barely Lethargic; with a lack of flair behind the camera allied to a below-par script, the movie sinks under the weight of its own low expectations and despite an opening sequence that passes muster, never amounts to much more than being acceptable.
D: Jalmari Helander / 90m
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Ray Stevenson, Victor Garber, Jim Broadbent, Mehmet Kurtulus, Ted Levine, Felicity Huffman, Jorma Tommila
On the eve of his thirteenth birthday, and following the tradition of his Finnish community, Oskari (Onni Tommila) must go alone into the mountains and hunt down and kill a wild animal such as a deer. If he succeeds, as his father (Jorma Tommila) did, he will be regarded as a man. But when Oskari chooses a bow as his weapon of choice, he proves less than capable with it, and he heads off uncertain as to how well he will do. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, William Moore (Jackson), is aboard Air Force One heading for a conference in Helsinki. Travelling with him is his senior security officer, Morris (Stevenson), who once took a bullet intended for the President. When the plane is targeted by mercenaries led by Hazar (Kurtulus), Morris gets Moore into an escape pod and jettisons it. As he parachutes to safety, missiles strike the plane and it explodes. Below, Oskari is tracking through the forest when Air Force One careens through the trees above him and crashes. Oscar discovers the escape pod and releases Moore.
At the Pentagon, the Vice President (Garber), along with General Underwood (Levine) and the director of the CIA (Huffman), are made aware of the situation. Using satellite feeds they begin to track the President’s whereabouts, and are aided by terrorism expert Herbert (Broadbent). He correctly identifies Hazar as the culprit responsible for the attack on Air Force One, though the mercenary’s true reason for doing so, to hunt the President for sport, remains a mystery to them. In time, they also learn that Morris is working with Hazar and his job is to deliver the President so that Hazar can hunt him.
While Hazar and his men begin to track the President, Oskari tells Moore about the rite of passage he’s on. They make camp for the night and the next morning press on with Oskari’s hunt. It’s not long, however, before Hazar finds them both and takes the President hostage, though only temporarily, as Oskari rescues him (though not in the most conventional of manners). In the process they discover that Air Force One has come to rest in a lake, and that their best hope for survival lies within it. But once they’re aboard they find themselves trapped, and with a bomb that is quickly counting down…
The most expensive movie yet produced in Finland, Big Game is a throwback to those action thrillers from the Eighties and Nineties where one lone hero took on a whole slew of bad guys and offed them in various inventive ways. Here the twist is that the lone hero is a thirteen year old boy, and the location – while reminiscent of Cliffhanger (1993) – is the stunning Bavarian Alps (that’s right, it’s not Finland). Though he naturally has top billing, Jackson is actually a supporting player in a movie that keeps its focus firmly on the path to manhood being taken by Oskari.
This allows the movie to rise – briefly – above the usual run-of-the-mill heroics expected of this sort of thing, but at the same time, to minimise the amount of risk or danger both Oskari and Moore find themselves in. At one point they find themselves in a fridge hurtling down the side of a mountain and then plunging into a river. But Hazar and his men make only a token effort to chase them, and they both emerge from the fridge with minor abrasions. It’s meant to be a man hunt (and the title is a pretty big clue as well), but it’s more like a polite ramble with the occasional burst of distracting gunfire. And it ends with a gloriously explosive finale that feels rushed, even if it is immensely satisfying. There’s a specific target audience here – aside from Hollywood producers – and it’s early teenage boys. It’s a boys’ own adventure, but devoid of real threats or real pain.
But despite the long-winded beginning, and the lack of any appreciable tension, Big Game is still straightforward, enjoyable stuff that ticks a variety of boxes while sidestepping some others. Jackson’s slightly pompous President is soon taken down a peg and learns a lot from his young rescuer; Stevenson’s loyal agent has a secret agenda and an Achilles heel of a health condition; Hazar is a predictably urbane psychopath; the location photography is often breathtaking; the Pentagon seems to be staffed by only ten people; and Levine and Huffman’s characters seem so inept it’s a wonder they’re in the positions they’ve reached. Add to all that a performance from Broadbent that feels like it should be in another movie entirely, and you have a movie that falls back on some tried and (not to be) trusted plot devices and stereotypical characterisations.
However, Helander – adapting an original story by himself and producer Petri Jokiranta – does invest the movie with a sharp line in humour (Oskari doesn’t recognise Moore at all; Hazar tells a helicopter pilot his best chance is to run as the mercenary doesn’t have a gun yet), and even allows Jackson to get in a carefully edited “motherf-“. It’s good to see the star of so many low-grade thrillers in recent years play against type (Moore gets beaten up twice), and even better to see that he’s enjoying himself. But it’s Onni Tommila who steals the show, his narrow gaze and determined features giving perfect expression to a boy who won’t give up, despite the odds against him (and the fact that he’s terrible with a bow and arrow). With Helander adding some family issues to the mix as well, and making Oskari resourceful but not impossibly so, the movie retains a core focus that serves it immeasurably.
Rating: 7/10 – while not as violent as audiences might expect (or want it to be), Big Game is still an enjoyable, though lightweight, piece of high concept entertainment; Jackson and Onni Tommila make a great team, and if, as it seems, the way is left open for some kind of sequel, then that’s not such a bad thing either.
D: Matthew Vaughn / 129m
Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Edward Holcroft, Mark Hamill, Samantha Womack, Geoff Bell, Jack Davenport
1997. While on a mission in the Middle East, Kingsman secret agent Harry Hart (code named Galahad) (Firth) makes a mistake that costs the life of his protege. He visits the man’s wife, Michelle (Womack), and their young son, who is known as ‘Eggsy’. He gives Eggsy a medal and tells him if ever he needs a favour, to ring the number on the back of the medal and say the phrase, “Oxfords not brogues”.
Eight years later, one of Harry’s fellow agents, Lancelot (Davenport) is killed while trying to rescue a kidnapped professor (Hamill). As the membership of Kingsman demands a continuous number of agents, Hart and his remaining colleagues are tasked by the service’s head, Arthur (Caine), with finding a replacement for him. Meanwhile, Eggsy’s home life hasn’t improved. His mother is in an abusive relationship with Dean (Bell), and he and his friends are bullied by Dean’s gang. When Eggsy steals one of the gang’s car he ends up being arrested. Remembering the medal, Eggsy calls the number and repeats the phrase. Soon after he is released and finds himself in the company of Harry.
While all this is going on, the kidnapper of the professor, tech-billionaire and radical environmentalist Richmond Valentine (Jackson) is blackmailing or kidnapping important world figures in order to support his scheme to reduce the world population through the free dispersal of SIM cards adapted for use in any mobile phone. With Kingsman becoming aware of his activities, Eggsy agrees to undergo the training required to become a Kingsman agent. While he competes against the other candidates, including Roxy (Cookson) and Charlie (Holcroft), Harry pays Valentine a visit to find out more about his plans and eventually discovers that the billionaire is planning a test of his SIM cards at a church in the Deep South.
Eggsy does well enough in his training to reach the final stage where it’s between him and Roxy for the position of the new Lancelot. But his confidence and commitment is rocked by the task required of him, and in the Deep South, Harry’s infiltration of the congregation leads to an unexpected and shocking development…
If Matthew Vaughn only ever made comic book adaptations from now until the end of time, it would be a wonderful outcome for movie lovers everywhere. Following on from Kick-Ass (2010) and X-Men: First Class (2011), Kingsman: The Secret Service is a razor-sharp, highly entertaining spy spoof that retains enough drama to give it the edge it almost doesn’t need. It’s a movie that is both self-referential and iconic, and shows just how this sort of material should be handled: with obvious love and affection.
Adapting Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book The Secret Service, Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman have created a world where the notion of a “gentleman spy” is still very highly regarded – by the spies themselves, and by the villain of the piece – and where a certain level of style is a necessity. It’s an Old Boys network, run as an elitist organisation that works so far behind the scenes no one’s ever heard of them. With its agents named after characters from Arthurian legend, and its adoption of high-tech weapons to back up each agent’s physical prowess, the Secret Service is a potent mix of the old and the new. From its bulletproof umbrellas to its poisoned knife tipped shoes to its underground hangar full of jets and helicopters and APC’s, this is an organisation that is serious about what it does, but also knows how to have fun while doing it.
The plot is straight out of the Sixties, with a megalomaniac threatening to destroy the world unless his demands are met, his ultra-dangerous sidekick – here Boutella’s artificial limbed killing machine, Gazelle – a variety of ingenious gadgets and some of the sharpest outfits this side of a Milan catwalk. As befits a Bondian villain, Valentine has a mountain lair with enough rough-hewn corridors for Eggsy to kill dozens of his henchmen, and he has a turncoat (or two) within the Kingsman organisation. It’s all presented with a splendid amount of panache (and above all, style), and Vaughn never loses sight of how important these aspects are in the grand scheme of things.
The director is more than ably supported by a first-rate cast that sees Firth cast entirely against type (but boy is he a great choice for the role), Jackson use a lisp to underline the absurdity of his character’s ambitions, Egerton grab the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands, Strong reinforce his status as one of the finest actors around (even if his Scottish accent wavers a bit), Caine provide gravitas and just a pinch of arrogance, and in a minor role as a kidnapped Scandinavian princess, Hanna Alström almost steals the movie with an offer Eggsy can’t refuse.
But what Kingsman: The Secret Service is most likely to be remembered for is the scene at the church, a technically impressive, devastatingly violent, gratuitously vicious, and brutally in-your-face sequence where the full effects of Valentine’s plan are felt. The camera swoops in and out and around the action, keeping its focus on Harry and never once letting up on the audience, as every blow and gunshot and stabbing movement is choreographed to furious perfection. It makes the night club sequence in John Wick (2014) look anaemic by comparison, and is all the more startling and effective by being almost balletic in its blood-soaked aesthetic.
Of course, while the violence is as bone-crunching and quasi-sadistic as you might expect from Vaughn, there’s also a great deal of humour, along with the underlying theme of finding your place in the world. It’s a rich mixture of pointed comedy and heightened violence, and as with Kick-Ass, Vaughn succeeds in ensuring neither element overwhelms the other, leaving the movie to find its own level throughout and proving an exhilarating mix of both. He’s further supported by dazzling cinematography by George Richmond, and there’s a terrific score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margetson that uses various motifs from other spy movies and still sounds fresh. And of course, special mention must be made of the costumes by Arianne Phillips, her bespoke suits and accessories all now available for the gentleman spy in your life.
Rating: 8/10 – a little too long, with the final showdown in Valentine’s lair proving an unnecessarily two-part affair, Kingsman: The Secret Service is still a stylish, uncompromising action thriller that delights at every turn; Firth is simply superb, and Egerton is a rising star with bags of ability – and then some.
D: Ralph Ziman / 90m
Cast: India Eisley, Samuel L. Jackson, Callan McAuliffe, Carl Beukes, Deon Lotz, Zane Meas
Some time after the death of her parents, Sawa (Eisley) starts killing members of the criminal organisation headed by the Emir (Meas), the man held responsible for her parents’ deaths. Sawa is helped by Karl Aker (Jackson), a detective who was her father’s partner. As she kills the Emir’s people, she gets closer and closer to him, but her dependency on a drug called Amp causes her to begin making mistakes, and soon her identity is in danger of being revealed.
While Aker covers up any evidence she leaves behind, Sawa is also helped by a young man named Oburi (McAuliffe). He says he knows her from before her parents’ death, and that they were friends, but thanks to Amp, Sawa’s memories of him are hazy and indistinct (along with most of her past). When a hit sees her being chased by some of the Emir’s people, Oburi helps her escape and, with no access to Amp, her withdrawal symptoms begin to help her remember exactly what happened when her parents were killed. And when she finally comes face to face with the Emir, the encounter leaves her with more questions than answers.
A live action version of Yasuomi Umetsu’s A kaito (1998), Kite was probably hoping that arriving so long after the original might mean any comparisons would be kept to a minimum. Sadly for the makers of this version, the gap in time isn’t an advantage, and the decision to “go live” has led to yet another dystopian vision of the future where street gangs dominate, crime appears to be the only growth industry, and the police are so jaded as to be little more than bystanders. We’ve seen this kind of movie so often now that it’s hard to get any kind of enjoyment out of it; the viewer can only sit back and watch as Kite ticks the boxes it so resolutely refuses to think outside of.
In the end, it’s all about the action, but despite some well choreographed moments of mayhem, including a bathroom shootout that’s reminiscent of the one in True Lies (1994), there’s nothing here that has any real impact. The characters are bland and/or one-dimensional, and nothing the cast does elevates the material in any way (not even Jackson, not exactly a stranger to crass or unconvincing dialogue, can do anything with lines that include “I can’t do this anymore”). As a result, there’s no one to care about, not even Sawa herself, and as the plot staggers towards the inevitable “twist” (that can be seen coming before the movie even starts), the sense of despair rises accordingly.
Rating: 3/10 – looking and feeling like a compendium of scenes and locations from every other ghetto-based action movie made in the last few years, Kite suffers from leaden direction and a script that fosters complacency all round; tiring and dispiriting, with missed opportunities galore, potential viewers should skip this altogether.
Agent Hill, Anthony Mackie, Anthony Russo, Black Widow, Bucky Barnes, Captain America, Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hydra, Joe Russo, Marvel, Natasha Romanoff, Nick Fury, Peggy Carter, Project Insight, Review, Robert Redford, S.H.I.E.L.D., Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Rogers, The Falcon, The Winter Soldier
D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo / 136m
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones
Episode 3 of Phase 2 of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe sees ninety-five year old Steve Rogers (Evans) still trying to fit in to the modern day era. After the events of Avengers Assemble (2012), his life has settled down a bit, though he still has doubts about his role in S.H.I.E.L.D. When Nick Fury (Jackson) sends him on a mission with Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Johansson) that proves to be cover for another, secret, mission altogether, Rogers confronts Fury over being used. Fury takes Rogers’ point and as a show of faith, shows him the fruits of Project Insight, a plan to pre-empt future terrorist activity involving three gi-normous heli-carriers that, once launched, will sync up with satellites in order to locate and eradicate their targets. Rogers is unimpressed and refuses to be a part of it all. Meanwhile, Fury, having acquired a USB stick that contains details of Project Insight, finds himself unable to access it, despite its having apparently been encrypted by him. He takes his concerns to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. officer Alexander Pierce (Redford), and asks for a delay in Project Insight’s launch.
Later, Fury is injured in an ambush carried out by agents we later learn are working for Hydra, and by a masked man with a metal arm; this proves to be the Winter Soldier of the title. Fury manages to get to Rogers’ apartment and gives him the USB stick. Before he can say any more, Fury is shot by the Winter Soldier. Both Natasha and Pierce attempt to find out why Fury was in Rogers’ apartment but he rebuffs both of them. When Natasha finds the USB stick he’s forced to accept her help, even though Fury told him to “trust no one”. They trace the stick’s origins to a secret bunker at the army base where Rogers received his training. There they encounter the consciousness of Hydra scientist Dr Zola (Jones) who has been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s systems since his co-option after World War II. A missile strike on the base that nearly kills them points to Pierce as the architect behind Hydra’s involvement in Project Insight and the attack on Fury.
With the aid of Sam Wilson (Mackie), a veteran with a surprise of his own to share, and Agent Hill (Smulders), Rogers and Natasha decide to stop the launch of Project Insight, but not before they’re targeted by the Winter Soldier. During this encounter, his identity is revealed as Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ best friend from his army days and someone everybody believed had died during a mission. From there it becomes a race against time to stop Pierce, the Winter Soldier, and the launch of the heli-carriers.
From the outset, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a more confident, more impressive outing than Rogers’ first appearance. Partly this is due to the first movie’s need to be an origin story, and partly because Rogers has always been Marvel’s answer to the “truth, justice and the American way” approach of DC’s Superman. He’s the ultimate boy scout, not for him the convenient grey areas and moral sidestepping of today’s society. Instead he sees things in black and white, and when challenged keeps his moral compass constant; it’s this unshakeable point of view that makes his character more interesting than many of his co-Avengers. Evans has grown into the role over the course of three movies, and he’s never less than absolutely convincing.
Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ever-so-slightly imperialistic view of the world is glossed over in favour of some extended action sequences and a final thirty minutes that tests the various effects departments to destroy as much as possible in as many ways as possible (if there’s one thing the Avengers are good for, it’s putting insurance premiums up on a regular basis). Rogers’ solution to the problem of Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. being joined at the hip (as it were) is extreme – and certainly poses a problem for the writers of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series – but it has a certain inevitability given the circumstances and the extent of Hydra’s infiltration. Pierce’s motivation is less clear-cut and has something to do with creating a new world out of the current one, where there will be no subversive activity because anyone fitting his description of subversive will be targeted and killed. (When the hell-carriers are launched and start picking out targets what we see on screen is laughable: in New York alone there appears to be a subversive living on nearly every block.) How this idea benefits Hydra is never explained, and for all the issues surrounding the rights and wrongs of homeland security, the greater plot is poorly explored and exploited.
Also worrying are moments where the plot falters in other areas. Rogers pays a visit to Peggy Carter (Atwell), now ill and in what looks like a nursing home. It’s a short scene, and while both Evans and Atwell give it the resonance such a scene demands, it sits uncomfortably within the movie and isn’t referred to either before or after. Part of Rogers’ solution to the problem of Hydra is to upload all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files and history onto the Internet, but why this is necessary is never explained, and only serves to give Natasha a chance to verbally stick two fingers up at a congressional committee. And Dr Zola is only too quick to explain what’s going on and spill the beans about Hydra’s activities within S.H.I.E.L.D.
But there’s plenty to enjoy as well. Those extended action sequences are superbly executed, although most of the hand-to-hand combat between Captain America and the Winter Soldier is edited to within an inch of both their lives, sacrificing clarity of movement for speed. When Fury is ambushed it leads to a car chase that is as thrilling, if not more so, than those in Need for Speed, and the fight in the elevator – Rogers against (I counted ten) assailants is a stand-out. Evans and the rest of the cast are on top form, and newbies Mackie and Redford fit in well as hero and villain respectively. The Russo brothers handle the visuals with style, creating a lot of space for the characters to move around in, both to emphasise the scale of the movie and the threat within it. And while some aspects of the script don’t always add up, for once the dialogue isn’t as hokey or contrived as it might have been (and the best line is delivered by the computer in Fury’s car). The relationship between Rogers and Natasha is deepened, there’s a quick-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to someone who’s still waiting for their own movie, some knowing humour in amongst the gunplay and explosions, and a short pre-credits scene that introduces us to… well, that would be telling.
Rating: 8/10 – narrative troubles aside, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a confident mix of character development – even Fury’s – and spectacular action; another hit from Marvel Studios and one that seems certain to be the real precursor to Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), rather than Iron Man 3 (2013) or Thor: The Dark World (2013).
D: David Soren / 93m
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Luis Guzmán, Bill Hader, Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez
Another offering from Dreamworks, Turbo is the tale of a snail who dreams of being a racer, and despairs of his everyday humdrum life working in a tomato patch. After an extended opening where his boredom is explored a little too thoroughly, Turbo (Reynolds) finds himself transformed after an encounter with the fuel of a dragstrip racing car. Now he has the speed he needs to broaden his horizons and live his dream. With the unlikely help of taco seller Tito (Peña) and a motley crew of fellow snails led by Whiplash (Jackson), Turbo wins a place in the Indianapolis 500. Can he realise his dream? Can he win over his worried, over-protective brother Chet (Giamatti)? Can he defeat the world champion, Guy Gagné (Hader)? The answers are…very predictable.
This is yet another plucky-underdog-overcomes-huge-obstacles-to-realise-his-dream movie, and while entertaining in a superficial way with some great sight gags and one running joke in particular that works well, Turbo never really takes off. The main problem lies in the plotting: there’s nothing here we haven’t seen a hundred times before, and while the cast is an amazing array of talent, the dialogue they’re given borders on the banal. The animation is proficient without having that extra zing that Pixar brings to the mix, or even Dreamworks themselves with movies such as How to Train Your Dragon, and the race itself feels, ironically, pedestrian. A missed opportunity, then, but still miles ahead of Planes and Cars 2.
Rating: 6/10 – while the movie under performs as a whole, there’s still enough here to keep an audience occupied; will fare better with younger children, and if there’s a choice, see it in 3D which adds an extra crispness to the visuals.
D: Peter P. Croudins / 91m
Cast: Dominic Cooper, Samuel L. Jackson, Gloria Reuben, Ryan Robbins, Erin Karpluk, Dylan Taylor
Pop quiz: You’re a mega-successful district attorney who’s never lost a case. After a night out celebrating another win in court, and having had a few drinks, you still drive home because you’re worried your car might be stolen while you take a taxi. On the way, you hit and injure a man. Do you: a) call for an ambulance using your mobile phone and stay with the man until it arrives? b) call for an ambulance by using a pay phone and then drive off? or c) carry on driving and don’t look back? If you answered b, then give yourself a gold star.
This is what hot shot DA Mitch Brockden (Cooper) does, and inevitably it sets in motion a series of events that ends with his wife, Rachel (Karpluk) and newborn child Ella being put in mortal danger. In between those two events, Mitch gets an uncomfortable case of the guilts. When Clinton Davis (Jackson) is arrested with the injured man – who is now dead – in his car later that evening, Davis’s assertion that he had found the man and was trying to get him to a hospital rings true with Mitch, even though Davis has tools in his car that match the weapons that caused the man’s other injuries. When Davis is charged with the man’s murder, it’s Mitch who gets to prosecute him.
For reasons too tiresome and unlikely to reveal here, Mitch’s estranged step-brother Jimmy (Robbins) testifies at the trial that he saw the hit and run. Davis is freed. Soon after, another man is found dead with similar injuries. Mitch now believes Davis did kill the man he knocked down, and when investigating Detective Kanon (Reuben) mentions other incidents that Davis is connected to, Mitch is convinced of Davis’s guilt. He decides to investigate further, but soon finds that Davis is more dangerous than he expected.
It’s not that the whole scenario of Reasonable Doubt is far-fetched, or that the motivations of both Mitch and Davis are about as convincing as a politician’s probity, nor even that the level of credibility is undermined continually by Cooper’s lacklustre performance – he demonstrates guilt by looking as if his haemorrhoids are playing up – it’s more that no one stopped to take stock of the movie while it was being made and said, “Hold on, isn’t this just the biggest load of rubbish?” If someone had, then perhaps we’d all have been spared this poor excuse for a thriller. As it is, the audience has to endure scene after scene of disjointed dialogue, uncomfortable plot contrivances, woeful acting (Cooper and Reuben are the worst offenders), and such dreadful direction that Peter Howitt’s name is changed in the credits (see above).
It’s always frustrating when movies like this are made. Reasonable Doubt could have been so much better, but the script by Peter A. Dowling comes across as a hastily assembled first draft. There is very little internal logic on display, and what there is is so ridiculous that even if you suspended all credulity you’d still be asking yourself if what you were seeing was really happening. The character of Mitch bears no resemblance to anyone in real life, he makes risky decisions based more on the script’s need for him to do so than any actual self-motivation, and for someone who is so good at his job – so much so that he knows a judge’s decision before he even makes it – he makes one stupid mistake after another, until he ends up arrested for the attempted murder of his step-brother.
And then the movie presents us with it’s most ridiculous and stupid moment: after receiving a call from Davis who tells him he’s going to kill Rachel and Ella, and after he overpowers a police officer, Mitch walks out of the police station without being stopped and while carrying the police officer’s gun! He doesn’t even try to hide it, just walks out with it in his hand! It’s when a script offers this as a development, and no one stops to say “Hold on, isn’t this just the biggest load of complete rubbish?” that you know no one really cares. So why should the audience?
There are – amazingly – worse thrillers out there, but these are mostly low-budget affairs with semi-professional casts and inexperienced directors. Here, there’s a level of conspicuous ability but it’s all for nought. Even Jackson phones in his performance, giving us a less intense, less convincing version of his character from Meeting Evil (2012). You could say that Reasonable Doubt is so bad it’s mesmerising… but that would be a whole other load of rubbish.
Rating: 3/10 – dreadful thriller that insults its own cast as well as the audience; proof if any were needed that some movies should have their productions shut down after day one.
D: José Padilha / 117m
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Harley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, Zach Grenier
With the Eighties being increasingly plundered for material that can be remade, rebooted or re-imagined, the likelihood of a new RoboCop movie was always a strong possibility. Now that it’s here, it’s inevitable that the comparisons between this version and Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original are appearing thick and fast, with equally inevitable results: it’s not the same (shock! horror!).
From the black suit to the addition of a wife and child, RoboCop is – and was always going to be – a different beast from its predecessor(s) (let’s not even mention the animated and live action TV series’). Some things remain the same though. Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is still a Detroit cop, working with his partner, Jack Lewis (Williams) to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (Garrow). When the pair get too close, Lewis is wounded in a shootout and Murphy is subsequently blown up outside his home. With his life hanging in the balance, OmniCorp boss Raymond Sellars (Keaton) offers his wife Clara (Cornish) a way to keep Alex alive: sign up to their research programme, headed by Dr Norton (Oldman).
Three months later, Alex is restored to waking consciousness to find himself encased in a metal suit and horrified by what is happening to him. After an escape attempt fails he begins to accept the reality of his situation and works with Norton to make the best of things and, more importantly, find his way back to Clara and his son David (Ruttan). With a projected annual return of $600 billion if their robot police programme is a success – and if a bill banning robot police officers is repealed by the Senate – OmniCorp is determined not to let Alex’s individuality ruin their investment. They take steps to control his emotional and judgmental responses, but reckon without his love for his family – and his need for revenge on Vallon – overriding their protocols. Soon, Alex begins to understand the depth of Sellars’ duplicity, and with his partner’s help, sets out to – yes, you’ve guessed it – bring Sellars to justice.
Although Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner – the screenwriters of the 1987 version – are credited alongside newbie Josh Zetumer, little remains from their script except various names, the Detroit location, and the movie’s basic structure. It’s not a bad (exo-) skeleton to hang things on and ensures the movie doesn’t stray too far from the (in-built) audience’s expectations. The major difference here is that Alex isn’t killed but is critically injured, making his memories and emotions a much more potent angle to explore… except the movie doesn’t. With the exception of a brief (read: cut short in the editing process) scene where Alex goes home for the first time as RoboCop, there’s no real exploration of what Alex might be feeling beyond having Kinnaman look aggrieved for a few moments in-between the action elements.
There’s also a lot of talking. RoboCop may be the first action movie in a long time to spend so much of its screen time having its secondary characters talk so often, and to so little effect. Jackson ramps it up as a thinly disguised version of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, spouting diatribes as only he can, and providing the movie with its thinly disguised attack on corporate America and the media as devious bedfellows (Jackson also gets to say m*thaf*cka, so some things are all right with the world). And then there’s the continual back-and-forth between Sellars and Norton where Norton voices a concern or a negative opinion, and Sellars just waffles a few sentences and Norton goes away appeased. (I swear I have no idea what Michael Keaton is saying in those scenes.)
With all this dialogue and by-the-numbers plotting, how then do the action scenes fare? Well, one first-person shooter sequence aside (which sticks out like a sore thumb), RoboCop delivers fairly effective if unexceptional action beats until it wimps out altogether and gives us one of the most ineffectual showdowns in action cinema history (look for the well-armed guard who doesn’t fire a shot – no, look for him: once RoboCop appears he all but vanishes). And if I have to make one comparison only between this version and the 1987 movie, it’s that Vallon is a poor, practically disposable villain when set against Clarence Boddicker.
The cast perform efficiently enough and Kinnaman makes for a strong-jawed hero, while Oldman does his best with a character whose motivations change from scene to scene (and sometimes within them). Keaton underplays Sellars and only occasionally shows off the nervous energy that made him so exciting to watch earlier on in his career, and Baruchel gets to play the annoying marketing character you hope gets killed by an ED-209. As Clara, Cornish has little to do but look angry or upset from the sidelines, and Jean-Baptiste (so brilliant in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies) is here reduced to treading water until her character is no longer required by the narrative.
Padilha directs with an efficiency and a drive that never quite translates into sustained tension, and there are too many filler shots of RoboCop zooming through the streets of Detroit on his customised motorbike. That said, there are things to like: Lula Carvalho’s steel-burnished photography; Murphy’s treatment of hired mercenary Mattox (Haley) after a training exercise; a short scene where a man with robotic hands plays the guitar; Mattox’s choice of music during Murphy’s first training session (plus Norton’s bemused response); the seamless special effects, a predictably vast improvement on 1987; and the movie’s best scene by far: the moment when Murphy discovers just how much of himself fills the suit.
Ultimately, what’s missing from RoboCop is a clear attempt at relating the emotional trauma of being a man in a “tin suit”. Without it, RoboCop doesn’t engage in the way it should do, and many scenes pass by without having any meaningful effect on the audience. It makes for frustrating viewing, and robs the movie of any real drama; sadly, it all ends up being just too impersonal.
Rating: 6/10 – a tidier script would have helped but this is by no means a disaster; a shaky start to a new series of movies(?) but enjoyable enough despite its flaws.
D: Spike Lee / 104m
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond
There are times when you just know that the phrase “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is going to apply to an upcoming remake or sequel, and that what will eventually hit cinemas – if the movie’s that lucky (or has enough money behind it) – is going to be as disappointing as sunbathing during an eclipse. It’s a very rare remake indeed that comes out as well as the original, and that’s mostly because those originals are lightning-in-a-bottle moments. From Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised and unexpectedly dull shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998) to the current vogue for remaking what seems like every horror movie from the Eighties, remakes are the lazy filmmaker’s way of keeping busy. And so it proves with Oldboy, Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-wook Park’s modern classic.
Even with Lee and writer Mark Protosevich saying they’ve gone back to the original manga that Park based his movie on, this version still fails on so many levels. The main character, Joe Doucett (played with his usual intensity by Brolin) is unlikeable from the start, so any sympathy we might have for him is dispensed with before he’s even held captive. There’s a cartoonish performance from Samuel L. Jackson as chief gaoler Chaney that comes complete with blond ponytail and which sits at odds with the rest of the performances, and the tone of the movie as a whole. When Joe meets Marie (Olsen) she gives him her number almost straight away in case he needs any help; yes, she’s an aid worker but would she really do that (but then how would the rest of the movie develop if she didn’t)?
The villain of the piece is played with pantomime bravura by Copley, and the only thing that’s missing from his performance is a bit of moustache-twirling (his vocal styling is quite irritating too). The sequence where Joe takes on Chaney’s goons with just a hammer now looks over-rehearsed and lacks any visceral quality. And the revelation of why Joe has been released is given a mock-opera makeover that resists any emotional engagement by the viewer because, in the set up, it appears that Copley’s character is able to install surveillance equipment wherever Joe goes and in advance of his knowing he’s going there.
In short, the movie relies on contrivance after contrivance and gives the viewer nothing to connect with. As a reinterpretation (which sounds more like prevarication than anything else), Oldboy ends up being like a mime interpreting a song: you wonder what was the point.
Rating: 5/10 – proficient on a technical level with excellent photography courtesy of Sean Bobbitt, Oldboy strips away the cultural depth of Chan’s version and gives us nothing in return; even judged on its own merits it’s still a movie that doesn’t work.