London Has Fallen (2016)

★★

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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

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

Oscars 2015 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2015

Don’t we all just love the Oscars? It’s an evening of maniacal celebration, of gratuitous back-patting, of cringe-worthy speech-making and of hosts trying to grasp the latest social trend – I’m looking at you, selfie Ellen. The folks over in Hollywood might “really like” Sally Field, but they’re not quite as fond of Selma or Nightcrawler, and goodness knows how fond they are of American Sniper (hopefully not as much as many fear).

All joking aside, Academy Awards night is a big one for the film industry. The movies nominated are, for the most part, pretty damn good too and should be heralded on a grand stage. Tonight’s ceremony is looking fairly clear-cut in most categories, but there are still a few ambiguities to be sorted.

Better get on with some predictions then. Click on the appropriate film titles for reviews.

Best Picture

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: Boyhood

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Interstellar

Oscars 2015 - Boyhood

Best Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

– Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

– Should win: Richard Linklater

– Should’ve been nominated: Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin)

Oscars 2015 - Inarritu

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

– Will win: Michael Keaton

– Should win: Eddie Redmayne

– Should’ve been nominated: David Oyelowo (Selma), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

Oscars 2015 - Keaton

Best Actress

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Rosumand Pike (Gone Girl)

– Will win: Julianne Moore

– Should win: Rosamund Pike

– Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow)

Oscars 2015 - Moore

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman)

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)

– Will win: J.K. Simmons

– Should win: J.K. Simmons

– Should’ve been nominated: Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Andy Serkis (DotPotA)

Oscars 2015 - Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Emma Stone (Birdman)

Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

Laura Dern (Wild)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

– Will win: Patricia Arquette

– Should win: Patricia Arquette

– Should’ve been nominated: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl)

Oscars 2015 - Arquette

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: The Imitation Game

– Should win: Whiplash

– Should’ve been nominated: Gone Girl

Oscars 2015 - TIG

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

– Will win: Birdman

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Guardians of the Galaxy

Oscars 2015 - Birdman

Final Thoughts

It looks as though the only real tussle – and it’s a big one – will be between Boyhood and Birdman for Best Picture. They’ll probably split the top award and Best Director between them, though Boyhood and Linklater deserve both.

Michael Keaton might yet nab Best Actor from Eddie Redmayne and despite the bookies favouring the Brit after his BAFTA triumph, I fancy the American to win in the US (cynical me).

As far as the other three acting categories go, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette are all shoe-ins. The latter two fully deserve to win. Still Alice still hasn’t hit cinemas over here in the UK therefore I have yet to see Moore’s performance, but I just can’t look past Rosamund Pike’s stunning turn in Gone Girl. Pike should win. She won’t.

The biggest snubs of the year are probably Interstellar and Nightcrawler. David Oyelowo absolutely should be contention for Best Actor (he should probably win it, in truth) but at least Selma has top table nomination. With ten possible slots in the Best Picture category, the dismissal of Interstellar and Nightcrawler is unjustified.

Carrie Coon should feel aggrieved to be missing out on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as should Channing Tatum in the Best Supporting Actor – or even Best Actor – category. It has been a strong year for the actors to be fair. And a word too for Blue Ruin, one of 2014’s less well-known masterstrokes.

If you’re watching, enjoy the show!

Oscars 2015 Best Picture

Images credit: ColliderHollywood Reporter, Indiewire

American Sniper (2015)

★★

American Sniper PosterDirector: Clint Eastwood

Release Date: January 16th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Biography; Drama

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

The problem with American Sniper is not necessarily that it’s controversial — though that train of thought is somewhat justified — but that it’s rather dull. In regurgitating a story set almost entirely during the worst of the conflict in Iraq post-9/11, and one based upon real events, you’d expect director Clint Eastwood to have something potent to say about war. At the very least, it’d be fair to expect a consistently taut human drama. We get neither from American Sniper, a film weighed down by overt patriotism and silly writing.

Bradley Cooper (now the recipient of three consecutive acting nominations at Academy Awards) stars as US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, a former rodeo cowboy so pained by news reports of terrorist attacks on his home soil that he enlists to fight abroad. It’s nothing more than a solid performance from Cooper, certainly not one on the same level as his two previous Oscar nominated stints in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

As the film progresses the bulked up actor’s role becomes an increasingly emotionless one, and consequentially quite thankless. Buying into the personal struggles of a man who spends his time in a place littered with death and despair — he, frankly, contributing to the mess — is a struggle in and of itself. This isn’t a critique of the real Chris Kyle, nor Cooper, and instead of the poorly conceived writing underpinning proceedings.

Adapted from Kyle’s own autobiography, Jason Hall delivers a screenplay severely lacking in nous or subtlety. Bearing no stance on the Iraq War that hasn’t already been exhausted on the big screen, or any screen, what we’re left with instead is a film trying desperately to convince itself that war is necessary. Men, women and children are all cast under the same umbrella marked “our enemy” and though this non-discriminatory outlook may well be a sporadically accurate reflection of reality, the film never suggests such a thing. Many of those whom the US soldiers meet in Iraq are carrying weapons with a view to kill. The suggestion is all civilians have been evacuated from the area of conflict, thus the ones who remain aren’t innocent. The fact that this wholesale evacuation hasn’t taken place compounds a lazily devised screenplay; as such, locals are placed on a morality gauge ranging from untrustworthy to terrorist.

In between head-scratching scenes that show Kyle conversing with his wife in the middle of a war zone — his attention should probably be on shooting all those baddies, right? — there’s a cat and mouse game playing out. An enemy shooter referred to as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) is essentially the domestic Chris Kyle. Granted, the film is called American Sniper and therefore isn’t a piece that was ever going to pay as much attention to the non-American sniper, but the lack of dispersed humanisation is off putting. Kyle’s rapidly burgeoning Call of Duty kill count is celebrated with gusto amongst his peers whereas any damage done by Mustafa is vehemently denounced as the work of a “savage”. Of course it’s savagery, but there’s hardly even a nod towards the ambiguity of Kyle’s actions — when the film does venture down this route it only juggles the immorality of child-killing as opposed to people-killing.

The picture is at its most tense and best when Kyle is staring down the barrel of his deadly weapon, honing in on said infants and fuelled by uncertainty. Unfortunately any good work is undone by a laughably glorifying final sniper showdown. Intrigue edges up a tad when we’re back on home soil, where the military man feels more and more out of place as each tour ends. Sienna Miller plays his wife but doesn’t get enough to do as the narrative always chooses to follow Kyle when he goes overseas. She’s good though, infusing a bit of steel into Taya whilst also relaying the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by her husband’s constant displacement. Miller just about manages to overcome her unnecessarily bit-part function.

It’s this lack of urgency that hampers American Sniper, more so than any controversial portrayal or underwhelming performance. You’d expect it to be well made, and it is, but it doesn’t have the musky atmosphere of a Hurt Locker or the gruelling presentation of a Fury, nor does it bear the rich characterisation of those films. Tom Stern’s projection of a war zone is almost conventional, which is surprising given the cinematographer’s accomplished portfolio (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, The Hunger Games). Eastwood doesn’t do an awful lot to alleviate this encroaching mundanity, he generating a tone that stops short at implying the possibility of danger lurking around every pile of rubble.

American Sniper has done extremely well at the US box office and, despite a more conservative reception over here in the UK, has undeniably been a success — particularly when its financial clout is coupled with awards recognition. This review is a bit superfluous in that regard, but I don’t think it’s without merit. It is entirely probably that the patriotic element is something that works well in America but not as well elsewhere. We all suffer as equals through blandness though, and this is bland filmmaking.

American Sniper - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures