Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

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Kenneth Brannagh directs Chris Pine, Kevin Costner and Keira Knightly in this younger skewing reboot of the Tom Clancy realpolitik spy series.

Pine hits the spot in a role that bigger stars have had a decent stab at and Costner adds a bit of charming grit to the mid budget chases and hide and seek sequences but it all seems a bit too throwaway. There should be good value in allowing the kind of intel worker who finds Jason Bourne on his monitor bank or gives James Bond his exposition to be thrust into the action mix and having to explain his mission weekends away and scars to the missus. Yet each film in this ever reseting franchise, even the mighty Harrison Ford’s pair, are merely above average rather than spectacular endeavours. The script does such a strong job of realigning Clancy’s patriotic Everyman (who is luckily military trained, has access to all the CIAs resources and just happens to be a finance whizz to boot) to the 2010s that we are disconcerted once he gets to face off with the villain that no similar effort is put into the derring do. For example a heart in mouth sequence where Knightley’s citizen and long-term life partner is grabbed and threatened with a particularly full on torture gets resolved clumsily within easy minutes. Like every kinetic sequence up to the last ticking time bomb it all feels dunked in by the second unit to sweeten the tea rather than essential. So we are left with a film that sparkles with it’s character work (espionage is likened to an affair often, even in the untrustworthy husband films the characters casually watch in their downtime like Sorry Wrong Number and Rosemary’s Baby) but only vaguely amuses with its action. A glossy time waster rather than a world changer, but interesting enough that you wish they had another crack with this crew rather than hitting CTRL-ALT-DELETEing on the property for a fifth time.

6

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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David Yates directs Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L Jackson and Margot Robbie in this old school with new tricks update of the adventure series.

Ignore the bad write-ups as this is a great adventure romp containing much to recommend it. Tarzan rips and roars along at a fair old crack with smart storytelling decisions, beautiful vistas, convincing stakes, enjoyably broad characterisation and just about as good an ensemble as you can get in a blockbuster these days. Jackson stands out as the American hero hoping to expose colonial ills with his rifle and swagger, who soon finds himself amusingly playing second fiddle once the race through the wilderness begins. With this, Django Unchained and Kingsman it looks like everyone’s favourite bad mutha fucker is fully back on form. Considering he steals the show from current highlights Robbie and Christopher Waltz doing what they equally do best is a testament to just how strong Jackson is here. If there is one fault it’s that the action is a bit unsustained. Not in any way unimpressive but maybe a faithful attempt to replicate classic cliffhangers instead of set pieces means the resolution to each action beat comes a little too quickly each time. Now, professional people’s main beef with Tarzan seems to be the colonial concept of a posh white demigod lording it over the African wildlife and locals just is a little too racist to pass muster these days. You could look at it another way… Tarzan is the near mythical tale of a man who respects and becomes a cohesive member of a foreign society that is not his own but he embraces wholeheartedly – an immigrant who thrives despite his otherness. I was the only white person I noticed at a busy showing in North London on a Tuesday night. While I can’t speak for everyone who shared the great big screen experience we did, we all seemed to gasp, cheer and laugh at the same gags, stunts and camera acrobatics. And on the way out the (very vocal) conversations I overheard were not about Alexander Skarsgård’s pale skin but his very impressive muscle tone. Maybe it’s a case that critics really should watch films with the public they are reviewing for, rather than with each other for free at a lifeless press screening. They might have PC chin scratched the average movie goer out of one of the better blockbusters of the summer.

8

The Babysitter (1995)

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Guy Ferland directs Alicia Silverstone, Jeremy London and JT Walsh in this drama about various sexually frustrated drunks lusting after the girl next door.

All our DVDs are packed away in boxes before the move to Scotland so we are at Netflix’s cruel mercy this week. We put this on thinking it was Silverstone’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle rip off The Crush. A mistake. As that sub thriller wasn’t great but this forgotten indie drama is far, far worse. Mainly a showcase for Alicia’s lovely long hair while various boys and men fantasise about fucking her, accidentally murdering her and (rather uniformly) soaping her back in the bath. Her character is a hollow vessel for all the cast to metaphorically cum in, she doesn’t have a name until the last scene or let alone fantasies of her own. The only decent performance is from a can of Coke that pops up in every shot for the first 15 minutes then retires to its trailer to call its agent and explain “This isn’t Clueless 2, get me out of my contract.” You miss its bright, effervescent presence by the shitty, grainy, weepy end. Really awful. Awful and boring. And as about a sexy as a bar of soap held by a drunk middle aged man.

1

I Know Who Killed Me (2009)

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Chris Silverston directs Lindsay Lohan, Lindsay Lohan and Julia Ormond in this adult psychosexual thriller reviled in its day by critics and professional haters due its former child star’s toxic media relationship.

IKWKM was a lot of dumb fun, and not just in a so bad it is good kinda way. I genuinely enjoy a pulpy thriller in the vein of Point Horror or Basic Instinct and have a massive soft spot for Lohan. She’s spirited and convincing here in both the good girl and the bad girl roles, and in her PG-13 sex scenes and strip routines, saucy as hell. The fact that such a decent starry performance is given to such a tongue in cheek silly script proves that this was unfortunately released in a period when LiLo bashing had become a global sport. Boo, the haters! Now there are a lot of targets for someone who want to shoot this B movie endeavour down to take easy aim at; robot hands and legs being the main culprit and the seemingly oft forgotten Saw style serial killer subplot that powers things along in the background. Essentially if you can think with the logic of a Mexican soap opera then you can preempt the ludicrous twists that come thick and fast. But by that same token if you can think with the logic of a Mexican soap opera then the incredulously bonkers unraveling of the mysteries will keep you glued to the screen and entertained. The ambitious red and blue colour scheme and some other quirky but forced symbolism suggest the director is aping the hyper ironic style of a Lynch or Coen Brothers noir. He doesn’t pull that off, to the film’s detriment, but at least the attempt to match the greats and not the run of the mill was there. The supporting cast is above average too but do struggle a bit more than Lohan with the mental machinations and ropey exchanges. All in all, there are far worse ways to kill a Friday night.

Film of the Week: Spartacus (1960)

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Stanley Kubrick directs Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons in this epic slave revolt against the Roman republic.

Gun for hire Kubrick distanced himself from this later despite probably having more control than most modern auteurs on this runaway production. All his usual concerns are here; dehumanisation by an incomprehensible gargantuan power, exceeding and refining genre, authenticity of setting, the politics of sex, war and the inevitably of death. And sure he may have filmed Kirk and Dalton Trumbo’s enforced scenes of a socialist utopian sub-society forming through gritted teeth (and he certainly seems more interested in the perverse and decadent corruption of the flavourful senate than the loves and cohesion of the bland freed slaves) but that doesn’t slash or warp the beautifully large canvas he has painted this colourful blockbuster on. The gladiatorial training camp feels like a dry run for his iconic work in Full Metal Jacket, the battles are magnificent and the romance between Spartacus and Jean Simmons has a wholesome chemistry… despite its sex slave roots. Ustinov is brilliant as the egregiously charming and self serving slave trader (only non-judgmental Kubrick could view such a character in a sympathetic, even likeable, light and get away with it). Whether you approach it as a thrilling Sunday afternoon killing adventure or the first large scale work of cinema’s most recognisable artist, Spartacus stands the test of time like rare few others in the sword and sandals genre.

9

Kate and Leopold (2001)

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James Mangold directs Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber in this time travel romance between a 19th century duke and 21st century career woman. 

More decline period Meg Ryan and this one is pretty vexatious as it squanders a good concept, a brilliant early turn by Hugh Jackman and some crisp direction by top end journeyman Mangold. The script fails as the bulk has the feeling of being assembled from the less memorable scenes of a forgotten sitcom’s first season rather than a tight 100 minute movie with a conclusion to pressingly get to. I love early Meg Ryan (I’m not going to say “young Meg Ryan” as that isn’t the problem, let’s clarify by saying “Meg Ryan back when she was hungry to make it”) but really after French Kiss and it is only her darker turns in Addicted to Love and In the Cut that work. If she felt stretched in a role rather than constricted there was a shift in effort. That sense of hating the gilded cage is apparent here as her Kate comes across as a bit of a selfish, petty bitch lashing out and interrupting the fish out of water fun rather than someone deserving of Hugh Jackman’s winning embodiment of an unjaded, principled and… Yes!… rather dashing love. My wife pointed out Billy Crystal is the only foil who works for her as he comes across as equally flawed. And I think she hit the nail on the head on why these romcom, with dream man macguffins rather than Harry Burnses as their end goals, don’t work for Ryan’s slightly irksome yet often adorable talents. And before someone pulls Sleepless in Seattle out of their arse… Ephron sensibly never shows us what a chalk and cheese trainwreck reality would occur after unleashing Ryan’s postal stalker on the widower and his kid’s actual lives post meet-cute.

4

 

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

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Jon M. Chu directs Lizzy Caplan, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson in this sequel to the magicians do heists sleeper.

The first film was a fun ensemble heist movie and the trailer promised more of the same. The only decent trick that has been performed is in the marketing as 2 is bamboozlingly bad. And while the sequel looks just as slick, and pretty much everyone is back, the follow up somehow gets bogged down in backstory whereas what came before was breezy and becomes incoherent from shot to shot when the storytelling used to be reliably solid. Gallingly it forgets to really have more than one bit of significant Ocean’s 11 style scamming (some sleight of hands and bodies with a playing card size microchip… that goes on for five minutes too long). Just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about shit no one really cares about. That and the final magic show, which really culminates in the most guessable con yet (I highly doubt that many Londoners would give a shit, think of us hurling abuse at poor David Blaine in his perspex box), betray a film that decided it should exist without ever figuring out how. New addition Caplan puts in some effort, showing up the incumbents who seem happy enough picking up a bonus paycheck while standing on their marks for a couple of takes. Ruffalo’s subplots and action sequences seem like they belong to a far darker, more serious film. Michael Caine gives a lovely one scene cameo including a placeholder swansong of serious acting in his monologue, but then decides to hang around. Is he going to treat every film for the next decade like his last, just in case? And we get two Woody Harrelsons… Which saves this from being the unforgivable 1 score. Yet imagine what a film that had two Woody Harrelson and then gave them something… ANYTHING!… we actually cared about to do would achieve? Even if it was merely one decent line of dialogue between them. A waste of all involved and easily the most goodwill insulting cash-in of the summer.

2

The Brood (1979)

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David Cronenberg directs Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle in this aggressive psychological therapy produces mutant rage children slasher.

As a freshman hypothesis of Cronenberg’s concerns (destruction of the family, the horrific cost of sex, physical manifestation of spiritual traumas as boils and sores, womb sacs ) there’s much for scholars to read into. Get yer dissertations ‘ere! As a horror film it is dull and duff, a waste of popcorn. Reed and Eggar’s scenes of role play therapy are better than Hindle’s directionless investigation. Only an attack in a nursery classroom, with playfully transgressive believable reaction shots from the kids, transcends the pretentious and the lack of incident.

3

Lost Highway (1997)

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David Lynch directs Patricia Arquette, Bill Pullman and Robert Blake in this surreal tale of sexual paranoia and violent jealousy. 

Not prime Lynch, I remember renting this out to watch with a mate at college and both of us sat silently through it, turned it off, took the VHS out and wordlessly went and did something better with the remainder of our day as teenagers. Twenty years down the line and a cautious revisit, I’ve aged better than it has. I now can appreciate the teased intention and few merits; Blake’s ashen faced Mystery Man is hauntingly creepy, the opening half hour has an inexplicable sense of dread and Patricia Arquette spends much of the film in various states of undress, sexual simulations and lovely noir hairstyles (I’m a man, sue me). But once the narrative shifts to focus on a “new” protagonist everything meanders to a halt. The plot has a weak Xerox of Dennis Hopper’s Frank in Blue Velvet (Robert Loggia is fine but he is pointedly no Dennis Hopper’s Frank in Blue Velvet) and everything stinks just like the Twin Peaks series 2 filler involving dull mechanic James running away to a married femme fatale’s mansion… The worst subplot inflicted on us once Laura Palmer’s murder was solved and Lynch abandoned the show. Is Lynch trying to demonstrate to those he left his show in the care of how such a staple noir plot should be done? He fails. Or is this all a forger’s note that he actually was more involved in the more maligned episodes of his television masterpiece? Possible. We keep cutting away to two clueless detective sitting passively, begrudgingly watching, staking out the dangerous affairs and behind close doors demons. Thank you David for including a massive “Go fuck yourself, you fucking idiots” to anyone trying to comprehend the point of this boring experiment. As it is Lynch, and he is such an obscure and unique voice, I’ll no doubt watch this again in 2030s out of completist’s beliefs. No doubt I’ll be just as disappointed again.

4

The Neon Demon (2016)

 

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Nicholas Winding Refn directs Elle Fanning, Jena Malone and Keanu Reeves in this hyper stylised look at a fledgling LA model’s brush with fame and hell.

Mean Girls meets Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me! Black Swan meets Zoolander! You can easily write 100 of these accurate reductions for The Neon Demon and that is part of the fun. Like Tarantino, NWR is a sampler and remixer of other movies (though his record carry case contains easy to place classic hits rather than Quent’s more obscure and hip white vinyl). And here he manages to mega mix a knowing rave of light, shimmer, surface and sexiness… And threat, constant, often intangible threat. A film so winkingly vapid that 50% is told in the reflections of mirrors, if not reflections of reflections – so all that matters is what we are looking at, who cares how it feels? Characters rarely touch unless it is to expertly apply or smear make-up and if ever they do actually connect, it is violently. Elle Fanning is magical as the less than naive naïf who promises a lot (many of her interactions involve making false deals she won’t deliver on), is desired by all and walks the fine line between hero and possible villain. The quite frankly amazing Jena Malone steals the show as a friendly make-up artist who you can’t quite trust. At times the pace can be a little too coy; the male support is well cast (Alessandro Nivola and Reeves kill in small roles) but feel sidelined by the last hour, and that aggressive punchline finale and epilogue will leave a bad taste in many mouths (I swallowed it whole) but as a gory, teasing peephole to a kaleidoscope of glitter, flesh and… well, strobing gorgeous neon, The Neon Demon wins.

8