London Has Fallen (2016)

★★

London Has Fallen PosterDirector: Babak Najafi

Release Date: March 3rd, 2016 (UK); March 4th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart

“Vengeance must always be profound and absolute,” sneers a baddie at the beginning of Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, sequel to Olympus Has Fallen. That movie wasn’t particularly good, though it still holds superiority over its younger British sibling, which is a pretty damning indictment of Najafi’s effort. As it transpires, vengeance is neither profound nor absolute. What is absolute is London Has Fallen’s failure to assert any sort of moral vigour, and boy does it try hard. This is a film that begins with an American-led drone strike — the strike lands somewhere in the Middle East and kills a bunch innocent civilians — and then concludes with a lot of western brouhaha. Gerard Butler’s pretty good, mind you.

An early morning jog unhealthily recants Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and London Has Fallen never really recovers. Why we find Special Agent Mike Banning (Butler) out jogging is a mystery anyway — this is a guy with an unpainted nursery room awaiting his handiwork at home. Banning is expecting a child with his wife, played by Radha Mitchell, whose limited screen time only marginally lags behind that awarded to both Angela Bassett and Charlotte Riley. The lack of time for the latter is a real shame given Riley’s sparky attitude imbues the piece with some much-needed freshness late on.

Ah yes: the nursery. We watch as Banning does a bit of home décor, all the while hoping upon hope he won’t get called away from his family to serve President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). And why should he be called? It’s not as if Banning is the President’s most trusted right-hand man. Only, he is, though not for long: Banning has his resignation letter typed and ready to send. Finally he will be free to live a comfortable life with his wife and future child. It’ll be grea– wait, hold on. The British Prime Minister just died. Big funeral. All heads of state invited. Damn, so close.

And so we voyage across the pond, fingers crossed that the day will run smoothly. Of course, it turns out the Russian President can’t be bothered showing up because, y’know, Putin joke. Neither David Cameron nor Vladimir Putin are mentioned by name — the British PM is instead referred to as James Wilson, though the Russian President receives no such treatment. Prohibitive legalities taken into consideration, this random-name-generator approach infects proceedings with an early dose of second-handedness that the film really could do without. Elsewhere, it’s a case of broad strokes: the Italian PM is depicted as frisky, the French leader as fashionably late.

In fairness, nobody is buying a ticket to see a screenwriting masterclass, but even the basic story formulation feels lazy. When it isn’t flip-flopping between watery thematic substance and vaguely racist punchlines, we get to sit through Secret Service meetings during which potential terrorist plots are dismissed far too easily. And absolutely everything is telegraphed: ominous brassy horns sound out as Banning details the President’s route through London, foreshadowing trouble with as much subtlety as a jumbo jet taking off. Then there’s the godmother conversation that reveals whose death is pending. This sort of blatancy leaves us with no dramatic handle to cling on to.

There are a few decent things afoot. The London setting works as a familiar backdrop and it’s enjoyable seeing the characters race around the city. One shot especially stands out: as an air raid siren booms, the camera pans back from ground level towards the sky, its focus fully on Banning and Asher as they navigate ghost streets. Props should go to cinematographer Ed Wild and director Najafi for this brief juncture of inspiration. And when the piece refuses to take itself seriously, there is mild fun to be had (including one or two well-conceived action sequences). Rather than ill-judged attempts at joining the political conversation, London Has Fallen should embrace its silliness more. White House Down managed its limitations well, opting for nuttiness over seriousness with some success, and this ought to have following suit.

We do see visual prowess, then, but ultimately there is no escaping the absurd special effects. A river blast looks like something out of a video game cutscene. A bridge collapses in Final Destination style (not London Bridge, oddly). And it doesn’t seem to be a case of hokey-on-purpose, but rather just poor visual integration. There is a disconnect between scene-setting shots, which take on a grainy quality hinting at realism, and silly-looking explosions. On a side note: at one point events fly stateside, to Washington, D.C. and to a White House that looks in tiptop shape following its destruction in Olympus Has Fallen. Somewhere, a plasterer deserves one heck of a raise.

London Has Fallen unmasks the US President as damn competent with a weapon and then reckons it can contribute to the debate over the perils of modern warfare. The entire saga is far too flippant to get away with any of it: not the nervy and misguided faux-justification of terrorism via wheelchair reveal, nor its self-forgiving attitude towards unethical war. American Sniper suffered from a jingoistic eyesore and this evokes a similar blindness — it really doesn’t have a moral leg to stand on. If anything, you leave the cinema severely disliking everybody. Apart from Gerard Butler obviously. Have you seen him batter Jimmy Fallon with a giant hand?

London Has Fallen - Gerard Butler & Aaron Eckhart

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Gramercy Pictures, Lionsgate

Grimsby (2016)

★★

Grimsby PosterDirector: Louis Leterrier

Release Date: February 24th, 2016 (UK); March 11th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Comedy

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong

Should you walk into a screening of this latest Sacha Baron Cohen flick not knowing what exactly to expect, you’ll be brought up to speed almost immediately. The first thing we see is a sweaty, mouthy sex scene between Cohen and Rebel Wilson, and here’s the kicker: it takes place atop a mattress in a furniture store. Thankfully Cohen, playing Grimsby goof Nobby Butcher, chooses to purchase said mattress having already christened it. We watch him wheel the thing home using an abandoned shopping trolley; he’s docked out in an England strip and is sporting a 90s britpop hairdo. Meanwhile, Blur’s “Parklife” blares in the background.

It gets much grosser than an in-store romp, though Louis Leterrier’s Grimsby never matches the unfiltered rowdiness of Borat, Cohen’s pinnacle comedic achievement. The film tries — you’ll know it when you see it — but the actor, once a laudable harbinger of satirical bite (and he may be still), is suffocated by a plethora of unoriginal sexual antics. Obvious targets are set up to be shot down: Bill Cosby, blandly, and Donald Trump, more amusingly. Smarter quips are less prevalent, though there is at least one (“Chilcott was dismissed for good reason,” claims an agency insider). It doesn’t want to be that sort of film, which is fine, but the invention isn’t there to justify a simple 90-minute yuck-fest.

An opening Call of Duty action sequence makes use of Leterrier’s background in the genre (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk): we take the viewpoint of Mark Strong’s Sebastian as he leaps onto vehicles and sends enemies flying with a barrage of roundhouse kicks. The violent obstacle course suitably concludes just as “Directed by Louis Leterrier” hits the screen. Sebastian is an MI6 agent and also Nobby’s brother, though the two haven’t been together since their childhood separation. Inevitably, their reunion sees the latter interrupt the former during a mission, resulting in the shooting of an ill, wheelchair-bound youngster and the escape of Sebastian’s actual target. And so, the brothers find themselves on the run.

In tandem with Cohen’s screenplay — co-written with long-time partner Peter Baynham and Wreck-It Ralph story moulder Phil Johnston — Leterrier attempts to infuse proceedings with that Edgar Wright sense of snap and whizz. It doesn’t work. Partly because the centrepiece jokes are based around sequences that overstay their welcome, thus any built-up momentum succumbs to comedic culling. But the use of flashbacks is also a great hindrance: we see the brothers as annoying kids, loud, sweary and arrogant. Not exactly the sympathetic formula required to make us feel for them when they are split up via fostering.

“Cigarettes & Alcohol” is the soundtrack to the film’s best scene: Nobby, having ditched the football jersey, dons his brother’s spy gear (including a black turtleneck jumper) and saunters forth in slow motion with enough Liam Gallagher swagger to match his Liam Gallagher mod mullet and sideburns combo. It is funny because you can feel a similar sort of pay-off building from the moment Leterrier intercuts Northern English football culture with britpop tunes and britpop attire. And it works because you believe in Cohen’s false big-headedness. He is fairly good as Nobby, it’s just that Nobby isn’t a particularly intriguing character.

The return of Barkhad Abdi to the silver screen is a welcome one, even though his role (drug runner) demands very little from a former Academy Award nominee. Booze comedian Johnny Vegas and Royle Family mainstay Ricky Tomlinson have fleeting supporting roles as two of Grimsby’s football-loving troupe: set during the 2016 World Cup, if ever there was something within the narrative to exemplify the film’s lack of reality or relevance, it would be the England national football team’s success. On the female side of things, Isla Fisher plays a helpful MI6 agent stuck behind mobile phones and computer screens while Penélope Cruz, well, has another portfolio credit.

Fans of Cohen might still enjoy this tamer-in-execution offering so long as they enter not expecting the piercing offence prevalent in earlier outings. Grimsby is basically just Johnny English Reborn, the not-so-good one, but with cruder jokes. There is a working class versus establishment thing going on, I think, but both sides are so plainly drawn nothing new or interesting sees the light of day. This is no Kingsman, which struck the correct balance between heightened impact and genre appreciation. Having said all of that, I did learn of Grimsby and Chernobyl’s twin city relationship. Wait, that was a joke?

Grimsby - Mark Strong & Sasha Baron Cohen

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Deadpool (2016)

★★★

Deadpool PosterDirector: Tim Miller

Release Date: February 10th, 2016 (UK); February 12th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein

When you strip away the humour, the action and the madcap characters, Ryan Reynolds’ decade-long pet project is a standard revenge tale. Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a cocky mercenary who becomes the seemingly invincible — and significantly cockier — Deadpool following an immoral experiment designed to cure his cancer. To make matters worse, Ajax (Ed Skrein, honouring his Britishness through elongated pauses and exaggerated vowels), the man who dished out said experimentation, now has it in for Wilson’s on/off lover, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). What we’ve got then is an unethical Robin Hood whose payback meter is on the brink of breaking point. Quite straightforward really.

Justly, a slow motion opening sequence ushers in the prevailing two-fingered mood. Rather than the names of the actors involved, we’re graced with the generic roles they will be playing: “A gratuitous cameo, a British villain, a hot chick.” Such blanket roles form part of an assault on the genre, supported by profanity-laden wisecracks. That’s all Deadpool is really, one giant gag. The jokes are self-referential to no end, and many of them aren’t even jokes — invoking names like McAvoy and Stewart, for instance, doesn’t take that much effort. A Detroit quip suggests smarter thoughts are at play, but they seem drowned out by an unflappable need to guffaw at anything genital-related.

Yet on the visual side of things, the film exceeds its own humorous expectations. Laughter might be hard to come by verbally, but visually director Tim Miller has crafted a goldmine: from an early shot of Deadpool popping his head out of the window of an overturned vehicle to arguably the movie’s funniest moment, a joke based around a mask. The latter works because Miller and cinematographer Ken Seng are careful in its construction, opting to tease us by positioning their camera at a certain angle. Another effective shot sees Wilson journey to his torture destination aboard a stretcher, creepily reimagining a similar scene in Jacob’s Ladder.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in Deadpool isn’t anything to do with the film itself, but its retrospectively overcooked marketing campaign. If you consider not just the punchlines but also the build up to those punchlines, there are probably around 30 or 40 minutes of Deadpool that anyone who has seen the trailers (which is everyone) will be familiar with. This means the jokes land with less oomph in the cinema, if any oomph at all — you could argue the best jokes are those that generate a laugh irrespective of how they are heard, which isn’t the case here. Here, repetition sucks the life out of would-be key moments, such as the opening vehicular mayhem or the standoff between Deadpool’s crew and Ajax’s gang.

By railing against the typical genre trappings, you would expect the film to at least offer something different upon nearing its conclusion. There is a joke about International Women’s Day that takes issue with uneven gender roles — a problem not completely eradicated on the superhero movie front — after which I found myself anticipating Deadpool’s response, for the film to maybe lead the way in making a statement. But it never does. Of the three main females on-screen, one is a wordless brute (Gina Carano), another is a moody teenager (Brianna Hildebrand), and the third is a prostitute (Morena Baccarin). And they remain as such: at no point do we see any of them deviate from their characters’ genericisms.

That was quite a lot of negativity, but Deadpool is undoubtedly an enjoyable twist on the genre and a piece that boasts its fair share of genuinely entertaining moments. The action is vigorous, any pulling of punches outlawed. It is a fairly brutal adaptation that certainly earns its stateside R rating; as violence goes, this has more in common with Marvel’s Daredevil than anything from the studio’s recent cinematic portfolio. A word too for an inventive closing credits sequence that implores you stick around, which is just as well given the post-credits scene is also cracking, an homage to one of cinema’s very best anti-authority comedy outings.

The movie wouldn’t be half as good without Ryan Reynolds, who looks and sounds like he is having a blast in spandex, his condescending voice a perfect match for the provocatively annoying character. The actor’s kid-in-a-candy-shop exuberance pollutes the air and spreads throughout the audience. It is a testament to Reynolds’ physical abilities that he manages to evoke Deadpool’s unique personality despite spending most of the flick beneath a mask. Mutant Wilson, by the way, looks like a terrifying cross between Freddy Kruger and the monstrous figure from Sunshine, so the mask is definitely a good call.

I’ll be the first to hold my hands up: in a packed screening room, my mellower reactions were consistently drowned out by uproarious laughter. This is a film that many have anticipated for a long time and it appears to have pleased the vast majority. There is clearly a desire to reflect the source material, which is admirable if a tad foolhardy. Maybe it’s the rebellious streak, or perhaps the cathartic undoing of distinctly poorer previous superhero incarnations (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern). Thanks to Ryan Reynolds, at least Deadpool offers something a bit different.

Deadpool - Ryan Reynolds

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Southpaw (2015)

★★★

Southpaw PosterDirector: Antoine Fuqua

Release Date: July 24th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Drama; Sport

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker

The fact that Southpaw struggles to hurdle the proverbial style over substance dilemma is perhaps not particularly surprising given its director Antoine Fuqua recently doused the silver screen with The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen. Having said that, Fuqua was also the man behind Training Day back in 2001, and had he borrowed more of that movie’s mettle, the filmmaker might have been onto a winner with this otherwise fairly conventional sports drama.

“Billy Hope” is a classic boxing name, the sort given to someone destined to surmount typical obstacles. True to form, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an underdog: orphaned at a young age, odds stacked against him from the get-go, we meet Hope right before he is about to box for the World Light Heavyweight Title in Madison Square Garden. He wins. And that’s fine; boxing movies tend to be underdog movies for a reason — in real life, the sport is all about rising above adversity and showing heart, so it is right cinema should reflect that.

But when dazzling shots of New York City find significant screen time, something feels off. Commercialism is in the air and it rears its rich head more often than it ought to. Sure, this idealist aura fits when Hope is champion and resultantly wrapped up in his material world — he and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a fellow orphan, live in a plush home with their adolescent daughter — but as soon as the fighter loses everything, materiality should no longer be his goal. For a while, it isn’t.

After Hope’s victory, the film is dead-set on convincing us that boxers never truly win. From subtle hints at memory loss, to his wife’s misgivings about him competing again, to the actions of another title contender, the darker side of boxing is emphasised. Of course, tragedy is bound to strike and when it does it’s really quite heartbreakingly played by the people involved. Those who have seen the trailer will know what happens — I’ll avoid the particulars, though it is easy to work out. The abrupt nature of the tragedy suggests it is merely a narrative device designed to propel Hope’s story forward, and although there is truth to that line of thought, it does also introduce compelling themes such as fatherhood with greater heft.

The legal resolution to the tragedy is poorly realised; the consequences seem lazily construed (harsh punishments are dealt to innocent parties, whereas the guilty gang appear to get away scot-free). Left wallowing in despair, Hope turns again to boxing rather than his equally distraught daughter, and then to drink and violence when the fighting does not pan out. His once loyal promoter (50 Cent) drops him without any incline of regret because, after all, “it’s just business”. Here, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s screenplay highlights the ruthless side of the sport, the corporate face that wholly goes against boxing’s brotherly backbone.

Gyllenhaal channels Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight, muttering and growling through helpings of dialogue. We watch him navigate home life with busted ribs and a busted face, and the actor sells the agony with so much realism you wonder whether he literally took a beating for his craft. The typical boxer stereotypes are enforced: Hope can’t really spell, nor is he a great public speaker outside the world of boxing, but at least we get a chance to see these anxieties play out. In truth he isn’t an especially well written character, erratic, for example, in moments of should-be clarity — an introductory conversation between he and maturing gym owner Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) combusts out of nowhere.

I’m not entirely sure how Whitaker meant to portray Tick; he flirts between calm and crazed a little too enthusiastically. Oona Laurence ably pulls off Hope’s book smart daughter. She has lovely poise and avoids the potentially suffocating Grating Child Actor trap. This is the Gyllenhaal show though. He manages to terrify and reflect instability, yet still garner our complete sympathy. Indeed it is a transformative performance, but the muscular physicality is almost irrelevant. His heavy face, his anguished voice, his bowed eyes — these are the traits that actually engage us.

But as unoriginal training montages begin to arrive, coaxed on by Eminem, the overly produced aura makes a comeback. I think the film gets too caught up in reaching an idealistic end point: it needs to better separate the grit and the glam (it does for a while and works as a result), because the glam is poison and we do not want our reformed anti-hero seeking out poison. Million Dollar Baby is an example of a film that brilliantly subverts the recognisable model. Fuqua, it seems, can’t quite help chasing another false dream.

We do see an apt balance of grit and glam inside the ring. Fights are HBO presentations, and broadcasting mainstays Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, Jr. provide commentary. Wide shots positively feed the authentic televisual nature of the matches (as opposed to lingering on the boxers’ faces, common in Rocky and Raging Bull, those films likely limited by their technical capabilities). The fight choreography even evokes reality: head and body clinches are plentiful, and a blood-sweat concoction violently sprays at the behest of punches. One particularly intuitive camera movement vaults backwards over the top rope after a brutal uppercut.

Apart from that, there is nothing new going on here. Fuqua directs on familiar ground, navigating efficiently through the usual peaks and troughs before landing where all boxing movies land. His lead actor elevates the material, but even he needs more support from those around him (main villain Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) is woefully wafer-thin). Southpaw was probably never going to be a true contender, but thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy Hope is at least somebody.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

Star Wars The Force Awakens PosterDirector: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: December 17th, 2015 (UK); December 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver

If the mark of a great movie lies in its ability to permanently tattoo a grin across the face of its viewer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might just be one of the best movies ever made. I couldn’t help but smile profusely throughout J.J. Abrams’ stunning series revitaliser, so much so that by the time the credits began to roll (following arguably the best closing shot the saga has produced to date) my jaw felt like it had been tagged by a fiery lightsaber.

We’re drafted straight into the chaos of war, and we see said chaos unfold from the perspective of both sides. Led by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), stormtroopers invade a small village looking for information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the one-sided battle that ensues relays a tangible energy missing from those ill-fated prequels. The scene shifts thereafter to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger rappelling down an airy, desolate craft hoping to find extraneous junk she can later trade for food. Much like Skywalker in A New Hope, we meet Rey draped in white dusty robes — they’ve turned greyish — on a scorching desert planet (Jakku).

Conversely, Ren’s First Order starship is chrome-like and glossy. When we promptly cut back to the vessel it evokes a sense of austereness, of strictly implemented structure, as if fear has been drilled into the crew by Ren and like-minded baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). By fervently switching between light and dark the film sets out its moral compass and highlights some truly wonderful sound design: the swoosh of lightsabers, the echoes of a vast ship. Ren is a terrific villain, full of dangerous complexity. Whereas Darth Vader would check his true emotion at the sliding door and favour an apathetic exterior, Adam Driver grants Ren an unpredictability that only serves to compound his menace.

Finn (John Boyega) is the link bad and good, having escaped the former only to find himself caught up in latter. We have moved away from the post-Cold War machine landscape into a more sinister, dehumanised age — stormtroopers are no longer artificial clones, but actual human beings, and Finn doesn’t want any part of the cruel conformity. He meets Rey on Jakku towards the beginning, at which point Abrams opts to stick with the pair, relying on their camaraderie and bustling chemistry. She is isolated yet wily and proficient; he functions through a humorous backbone likely installed as a defence mechanism against his shady past.

Ridley sparkles with vibrancy and Boyega is instantly likeable; together, they click into gear like a pristine Millennium Falcon. At times, you feel like you’re watching a buddy road trip venture, only here the sputtering cars have been replaced by sky-scoping jets. At one point both Rey and Finn repeat, “I can do this. I can do this,” perhaps speaking on behalf of their director who absolutely has ‘done it’. An information-touting droid named BB-8 trundles alongside the pair, spluttering hilarities. Oscar Isaac gushes charisma as Poe Dameron, premier fighter pilot for the self-descriptive Resistance, but he doesn’t feature nearly enough (nor does Gwendoline Christie’s First Order baddie Captain Phasma, who’ll likely see more screen time in the extended edition Blu-ray).

The Force Awakens wouldn’t be a proper franchise sequel without some crowd-pleasing throwback nods and while these moments are smirk-inducing for those in the know, they also bear just enough subtlety to avoid alienating those taking part for the first time. The snappy one-liners are genuinely funny and this shouldn’t be undervalued; indeed, the fact that many of the gags are rich in Star Wars mythology affords them greater validation. Marvel films, by comparison, employ a similar comedy format and although the jokes are often funny, they don’t quite have the same vitality.

A Kraken-esque battle scene inside a ship unfolds like something out of Doctor Who, only louder and bolder and much, much more expensive. Abrams’ film invokes the same melodramatic filling championed by the original trilogy: characters say mad things with a serious tone and pull it off. This is particularly true of Domhnall Gleeson, who offloads some terrific thespian yabber — 1977 wants its patter back — the best of which manifests during a maniacal speech straight out of Saruman’s playbook. But the outing is a playful fantasy at heart, a grandiose adventure, and everyone knows that. When some sentences creak, and some do, it’s just part of the charm.

That certainly doesn’t mean screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams (they redrafted an earlier Michael Arndt script) avoid hefty solemnity. There are instances of genuinely shocking gravitas, moments bolstered by Dan Mindel’s sweeping cinematography. The landscapes that unfold before our eyes feel authentic, primarily because they often are. Fight scenes boast substance too and the action is easy to comprehend, therefore the stakes are raised. John Williams’ score, as if it really needs saying, is as wondrous as ever.

Speaking of revamped classics, a few familiar faces join in on the fun. Harrison Ford’s grouchiness totally fits his older Han Solo, the rogue still fond of heart-warming cynicism. Carrie Fisher doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Leia, now a General, but her presence fuels the film’s emotional weight. Crucially, and this is true of the various other returnees, the duo serve the story: seeing our heroes back together in such a familiar environment is meaningful. It also ages the world in the best way possible — we know it is the same place as before, but we don’t know what fresh mysteries lie beyond the next star.

The beauty of The Force Awakens is that it addresses the nostalgic needs of the many while simultaneously ushering in a contemporary set of filmic variables ripe for fresh storytelling. It’s not just about waiting impatiently for the old guard to reappear; the new faces are a delight. I say four stars for a truly fantastic motion picture romp, and one more to J.J. Abrams for his frankly ballsy decision to take on the hopes of a cine-nation and successfully rekindle that highly sought after magic. We really appreciate it.

Star Wars The Force Awakens - Boyega & Ridley

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

’71 (2014)

★★★★

'71 PosterDirector: Yann Demange

Release Date: 10th October, 2014 (UK); February 27th, 2015 (US limited)

Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy

Yann Demange’s ’71 centres on the exploits of a British Army regiment deployed in Belfast shortly after the onset of The Troubles. More precisely, it tails separated officer Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as he roams the city’s broken pavements during one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland’s history. “Catholics and Protestants living side by side at each other’s throats,” is the takeaway from a brief history lesson. What follows is an all too resonant practical class.

The lesson also informs us of the Falls Road, Belfast’s very own Berlin Wall, and the flats that occupy said road — turns out these have been rented with force by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic side of the conflict. Hook’s regiment is allied with the Protestant side, though working relationships do exist between less extreme members of each division. The British Army are in Belfast to alleviate homegrown conflict, apparently, but when an arms raid goes wrong Hook finds himself alone and in dire straits.

The streets look suitably war-scarred: plumes of black smoke emanating from bombed artefacts constantly pollute the air and the pavements are stained with charred rubble. At the beginning of the film, we see the squad’s intense training regime via a collection of vignettes kinetically sewn together by editor Chris Wyatt (his efforts emphasise just how gruelling the occupation is). These vignettes also promote teamwork, endurance, and the need to fulfil objectives no matter the cost. When the action kicks off, the implementation of such a tough training schedule is quickly justified — a Children of Men-esque chase sequence through decrepit buildings missing internal walls and any sense of homeliness attests to that.

Both factions are shown to be as bad as each other. Soldiers treat women and children (and men) unethically while IRA crowds attack them with bricks, and worse. An atmosphere of hatred fills the screen and the film bloodily obliges, depicting barbarous acts with gruesome consequences. Even apparent teammates struggle to get along: danger is literally around every corner, funded mostly by Provisional IRA youths who refuse to take direction from David Wilmot’s senior IRA member. There isn’t enough time to sufficiently define secondary characters, though Wilmot is effective. So too is Sean Harris, who facially muscles his way through the piece as British Army Captain Sandy Browning.

I was reminded of Lexi Alexander’s football hooligan drama Green Street throughout: pubs recalibrated as bases; untameable urban infection; youngsters shadily mentored; unruly masses bombarding boulevards. The difference is ’71 works on a more striking level because the stakes are far higher. Despite this, good also prevails on both sides. “You’re just a piece of meat to them,” says one kind-hearted stranger to Hook, referring to the latter’s army superiors. Said stranger is Eamon (Richard Dormer), a passer-by who treats Hook in his home with the help of his daughter (Charlie Murphy) despite their ideological differences. He’s right too; faceless pawns dominate both sides in a personal war fought through impersonal battles.

Corey McKinley has a short and feisty stint as a young Loyalist child, adding a dash of humour to proceedings. Jack O’Connell conveys enough humanity through his actions and speech for us to root for him, though his goodness is primarily bolstered by the evil prerogative of those around him. In focusing its efforts almost exclusively on its cat-and-mouse narrative, the film’s straightforward approach doesn’t leave much room for deep thought, though a few thematic layers are in there for those after something more extensive to chew on (shades of grey, violence breeding violence etc).

David Holmes’ pulsating score ratchets up the existing tension to an even greater level — this tension, coupled with the film’s revenge-thriller element, reflects Jeremy Saulnier’s taut indie darling Blue Ruin. And much like Blue Ruin, ’71 benefits from some assured directorial guidance. Demange flirts with psychological horror (a chilliness assisted in large part by the eerie nighttime setting), but the film is a thriller at heart and a damn good one.

It can be difficult to keep track of the various warring factions’ motives and the conclusion doesn’t offer much in the way of a relieving resolution (given the film is set at the beginning of The Troubles, this can’t really be helped). “It was a confused situation,” rings out towards the end and ’71 attests to exactly that in its presentation of an unstable Northern Ireland. The film itself is far from confused though, playing with a confident directness and winning as a result.

'71 - Jack O'Connell

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): StudioCanal

Spectre (2015)

★★★★

Spectre PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (UK); November 6th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography was all the rage at the Oscars earlier this year, and Hoyte van Hoytema has tapped into the technical furore. Spectre begins with a Birdman-esque gallivant through a musty Mexican city, hollow drum beats slowly drowned out by the fluid orchestral waves of Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme as proceedings manoeuvre away from Day of the Dead festivities and towards 007’s (Daniel Craig) ensuing mission. Bond shoots at his target, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), causing an enormous explosion that ought to terminate the wrongdoer. But just when you think it’s mission complete, Sciarra escapes. We momentarily meander back into the slow-moving parade before barrelling skywards aboard an out-of-control helicopter.

Director Sam Mendes is clearly having fun playing with our expectations, teasing tonally and pacing-wise. It is a super sequence in mechanical terms, but also a celebration of Bond: throughout the five-minute long take we see spying, shooting, surviving, and seducing. And, deviously, the film eliminates a would-be model Bond villain in record time — at one point the camera catches Sciarra looking like a cross between Jaws and Raoul Silva.

The main title montage then springs into life, this particular incarnation both encapsulating and artistically rich, affording meaning to Sam Smith’s otherwise uncertain lyrics. Perennial opening credits creator Daniel Kleinman delivers a montage that is all about retracing familiar steps, and Spectre does a lot of backwards walking. Bond, no longer in favour at a spatially revamped MI6, finds himself working outwith the espionage structure of government moderniser Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), aided covertly by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw).

The film is an entirely different prospect to Skyfall; this, in many ways, is Bond back to basics. Somewhat shunned by the morose undercurrent of its predecessor, Spectre revisits the franchise’s sly vein of humour. Ben Wishaw continues to grow into the role of Q, his pinpoint comedy timing affording the character greater charm. We dash all over the globe, though admirably the outing never succumbs to the artificial sheen of a travel brochure. Snowscapes make a comeback — there’s something to be said for beautiful blanket-white mountain locales and Bond often speaks fluently in this regard.

Just when you think the film won’t eclipse its previous action set piece, an even bigger and better one explodes on screen. Heck, we even get a hulking villain in Hinx, the bruiser given personality by Dave Bautista whose terminally arrogant-cum-ominous grin suggests total control. He brawls with Bond aboard a train in a punch-up that looks and sounds brutal — words such as vigour and pulp spring to mind as you begin to think Hinx might actually be a Terminator.

Some shots could have easily been borrowed from a Sergio Leone western, prompting quite the departure from what is otherwise a modern espionage jaunt. These pit Bond as the ageing gunslinger, a field agent feeling the brunt of a very real existential crisis provoked by Denbigh’s mechanical tactics, but also an operative who is still able to get the job done. Taunted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who, like Denbigh, is also plugged into the new world, Bond must confront the ghosts of his past in order to remain operationally relevant.

See, while reviving the franchise’s historical spirit, Spectre also roots itself in present day amenities. Denbigh is the corporate stooge infecting our treasured institutions, the guy who wants to take MI6 “out of the Dark Ages”. He heads up the Centre for National Security, or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it, a base designed to undemocratically scrutinise the globe. His vision is all-encompassing, a desk-based surveillance system that identifies and eliminates potential targets. Keyword: potential.

As Bond battles enemies in the field, seeing Fiennes and Scott engage in a dual over career politics is a warranted change of pace and one that never ceases to intrigue. A paranoid air arises based on the premise that any misstep might be critical, and this trope no longer only applies to Bond. The argument relayed by the old guard, essentially, is that espionage is too cloudy to be conducted in an impersonal manner.

This clash between old and new also incorporates Waltz’s Oberhauser, though the less said about him the better. He struts on screen encased in a cloud of shadow, Hoytema’s cinematography imbuing the character with immense mystique. We know exactly what Christoph Waltz looks like and yet we can’t help but wonder what sits beneath the darkness. Interactions between Oberhauser and Bond are few and far between and you do find yourself yearning for more, but perhaps the restraint employed by Mendes and his team of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth all contribute) is what funds the tantalising energy surrounding both men.

Romantic (or unromantic) strands are still odd and awkward to sit through, especially in 2015. Bond’s infallibility when it comes to courting women remains a key characteristic that is tough to get along with, though his relationship with Lea Séydoux’s Madeleine Swan is at least sort of understandable — Madeleine is, after all, the daughter of spy. His fleeting flirtation with Monica Bellucci, playing a grieving widow, isn’t quite as logical.

A word finally on Daniel Craig, who looks like he is once again enjoying himself after the stunning solemnity of Skyfall. Spectre may or may not be his last tux session. Either way there is no denying the actor’s quite remarkable achievement since donning the attire in Casino Royale: imperfectly humanising a foolproof iron man. I’m not so convinced viewers these days aspire to live the life of Bond, and that is a good thing.

Spectre - Daniel Craig

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia Pictures

Sicario (2015)

★★★★

Sicario PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (US); October 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Drama

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

For Denis Villeneuve, Sicario marks something of a departure from Enemy’s odd intricacies and the personal anguish of Prisoners. It has more in common with the latter — a nasty streak and a bleak underbelly — but Villeneuve’s third English-language outing is a different beast entirely. It’s a very cold film. There is so much bloodshed that you almost become impervious to feeling, though attempts to humanise its various players are admirable and fairly successful. Sicario’s concerns are wrapped up in the (under)world of grisly cartels, and in how the war on drugs has fostered moral imprecision, even on the ‘good side’.

FBI agent Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt) is part of that good side, and one of only a few individuals whose outlook relays consistent righteousness. We realise instantly that Kate is both strong and capable, yet not at all infallible. Nobody is for that matter — when her team finds a myriad of deceased bodies plastered behind the walls of a house, physical and mental repulsion take over (there’s a lot of vomiting). This discovery triggers an IED explosion that kills two agents, setting in motion a covert investigation into some serious criminal wrongdoing. Kate, driven by a need for revenge, volunteers for the job.

She has to navigate a landscape dominated by important-looking men wearing suits and asking personal questions (“Do you have a husband?”). Josh Brolin’s Matt Garver is one of those men, an advisor-cum-field officer whose macho posture is supported by a spine of arrogance — for some reason he wears sandals during mission briefs. Garver leads the field operation, batting back Kate’s inquisitive questions with vague swings; you get the sense his unwillingness to reveal all has less to do with bureaucracy infecting law than it does pomposity.

Pitting Kate in amongst cowboys and sheriffs and gruff Texans with gristly beards seems to be Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s way of acknowledging reality while also challenging the effectiveness of a masculine culture. While most of the men — not all, Kate’s partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is similarly noble, though he too is portrayed as an outsider — are energised by the presence of their egos, Kate, indiscreet and somewhat inexperienced, is our key moral fibre. It’s through her gaze that we peer into an immoral world, and it increasingly feels like only her actions can reshape said immorality.

Sicario is clear in its admission that nothing is clear. People are neither good nor bad (in fairness some are quite bad) but instead exist somewhere along an ethical spectrum. A Mexican cop whom we visit throughout the film is shown interacting with his family, particularly his football-loving son. Joe Walker’s editing — which cuts from the search operation to the officer’s modest home — implicates the cop in some form of corruption, yet his family-conscious roots are never invalidated. The vast majority of people on-screen are treated as human beings, a trait often missing in films that depict warring factions (see American Sniper).

If government agencies and drug cartels are the factions at war, Juárez, Mexico is the battlefield. The city is introduced as a final level boss: maze-like, audibly inscribed with tales of dread, bookended by a pulsating score. It’s the urban equivalent of Everest’s Death Zone — the longer you stay, the more likely you are to die. Perennial, and future, Oscar nominee Roger Deakins often gives scenes time to breath, funding the perception of encroaching danger. Civic infection has wreaked havoc upon the people of Juárez, so much so that civilian life is now inseparable from criminal activity. Just ask Silvio, the aforementioned policeman.

Early on, we take a drive through the cartel capital in a stretch of truly exceptional filmmaking. It’s tense, eerily subdued. It makes you feel ill, and its conclusion ushers forth one of the most anxiety-ridden traffic jams in silver screen history. Following the film’s incredible opening third (which is ostensibly a 40-minute horrorfest) the pulse inevitable drops. What follows isn’t quite as interesting; it’s the downtime between assignments, where Kate and co. swan around bars and stare diligently at maps, invoked to add character depth.

One of those characters is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the titular sicario. Del Toro saunters on screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. Gillick says very little, affording extra reverence to the few words he does speak: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time”. Or, in layman’s terms, conquering a complicated cartel network is inescapably complex.

Lines are blurred and identities masked in Sicario’s post-9/11 society. This is Zero Dark Thirty with a narcotic skin. There is a wonderful sequence that precedes the final act (at which point the tension re-escalates): darkened human silhouettes descend into the black abyss below a brooding, orange-tinted skyscape. It’s a sublimely serene moment in a film otherwise dominated by impending threat. The serenity, like life in Juárez, is short-lived.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

The Martian (2015)

★★★★★

The Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Release Date: September 30th, 2015 (UK); October 2nd, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara

As Ridley Scott’s fourth headline entry in the science fiction genre, you might pre-emptively think The Martian is one giant leap too many. The film opens with a steady pan across wondrous space, a shot that harkens back to his first offering, Alien. But this isn’t Alien, far from it. Nor is it Blade Runner or Prometheus. The Martian is too busy swimming in the delightful proclivities of space pirates and gaffer tape to concern itself with morose terminators and monstrous creatures. In short, this giant leap is the best one Scott could hope to make at this stage in his career and, indeed, the right one for mankind to feast on.

Drew Goddard recalibrates Andy Weir’s highly regarded novel with impetus, creating a screenplay that sparks with life and manifests on screen in surprisingly slick 140-minute form. It’s about botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars after an Ares 3 mission catastrophe (a scene shot with intense furore). Accordingly, we spend a lot of time in the company of a man whose technical wizardry acts as a lifeboat. There is a lot of scientific space lingo and control room hubris, yet a combination of Goddard’s wily script and Damon’s charming performance renders the would-be impersonal exceedingly personal.

Mars’ landscape is incredible — when Watney awakens from his unconscious state and ambles across the rusty sand, you really feel his isolation. The grandeur both intimidates and inspires. His first call of duty is a squirm-worthy medical scene involving pliers and the astronaut’s gaping abdomen. Matt Damon recaptures the tortured spirit unleashed by Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, and the excruciating results would make her proud. His eyes are black and heavy at this point. To fund the sense of total seclusion, we’re stuck with Watney on Mars for a good chunk of the movie (though “stuck” suggests it is time spent against our will, when in fact it is some of the best time I’ve spent at the cinema this year).

The Martian is about a smart person (and later people) doing smart things, and Damon is perfect as the savvy loner. He is brilliant company, erupting with charismatic poise and an everymanness that usurps his specialised occupation. You feel an authentic burst of joy every time he connects the problematic dots via intellect and nous. Cinema will do well to conjure up a more likeable presence before 2015 is out. There’s no volleyball, but for a companion Watney employs a webcam and, like Cillian Murphy’s Capa in Sunshine, our hero speaks to the camera as if conversing with us and not with a machine. Emotions become capital and we absolutely get our money’s worth: whenever Watney wells up our natural instinct suggests we do the same.

The self-proclaimed greatest botanist on the planet often wears a scowl that implies a freak out is imminent, but instead whimsical quips relieve any tension. He has to be sarcastic and jokey in order to survive, and his jokes are unequivocally funny (“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup”). David Bowie’s “Starman” tune is part of an expertly employed soundtrack that feeds the genial air surrounding Watney’s shenanigans — potato growing, alphabet reconfiguration, machine hacking, to name but a few.

In any other Ridley Scott sci-fi effort, the titular man-Martian would be cursing God and trembling through his deserted predicament. But not here. Here, the prevailing sentiment is a hearty, somewhat sly, “Fuck you Mars.” Watney throws a plethora of insults at his host — the planet becomes the enemy. It’s man versus wild, and there is an acknowledgement from the filmmaker that threat ought to still linger despite the upbeat atmosphere. Watney, as such, has to contend with peril constantly swirling around him, danger emboldened by the movie’s forthright sound design.

Goddard’s screenplay — which he initially wrote intending to direct — likes to poke fun at PR and at press discourse. The film is barely five minutes old before the digs start: “Mark just discovered dirt — should we alert the media?” (as fate, or otherwise, would have it we got a water-related Mars announcement from NASA just days before the film’s release). While Watney does his best to stay alive, the mission back on Earth is to somehow spin his survival into a non-destructive PR story. Those doing the spinning, somewhat amazingly given the cynical Zeitgeist in which we live, are far from deplorable.

They each have flaws: Jeff Daniels’ NASA chief is a bit impersonal; Sean Bean’s Ares 3 crew supervisor heralds gut reaction over practicality; and even Kristen Wiig’s publicity woman can be on the dismissive side. But they are all amiable people trying to do good. While on Mars it is all about Spielbergian wonderment, quirky humour, and a genuinely winsome crust, the Earth arc mixes a jaunty detective movie with corporate drama. Bureaucracy plays a part — should they or should they not inform the Ares 3 crew that their man is still alive? Those at NASA struggle to keep up with Watney’s ingenious prowess despite their technological advantage, and the film hilariously emphasises this.

The cast is rich in depth but very large, and you worry that some might suffer due to a lack of screen time (a criticism many aimed at Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest). Thankfully, by the end, the vast majority are afforded a moment to shine. It’s great seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor in a breezier role, and he fits the bill as home-based NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor with coolness to spare. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña and the remaining Ares 3 crew members function like a well-oiled team despite their comparatively short-lived screen stint. Mackenzie Davis is very good as the freshman NASA analyst, energising a potentially corny role. Kristen Wiig, too, confidently plays against type.

As the film advances, the Sol counts (the number of days spent on Mars) that are systematically thrown up on screen do lose their clout. It could be argued that the piece unwittingly stumbles into a pacing issue; not that it ever threatens to plod along, but rather that the on screen presentation of advancing time is a tad careless. The longer we go, the less it impacts on us (though admittedly, by the time the grand conclusion gets under way nobody really cares).

It is dramatically better than Apollo 13. Visually, it rides the same rocketship as Gravity — Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is foolproof. The Martian probably isn’t Ridley Scott’s best sci-fi movie (both Alien and Blade Runner will take some beating), but his love letter to human dexterity, perseverance, and personality is an utter triumph.

The Martian - Matt Damon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox