Only the Brave (2017)

brave1Sometimes, expectations are everything: Only the Brave is a frustrating film. Oh, its sincere enough, and a noble attempt at telling its true story with respect and surprising restraint- this isn’t the huge Hollywood effects spectacle that might be expected. It just doesn’t, sadly, ignite (sic). Its such a strange thing- competently staged and with a really great cast (Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly)… actually, maybe that cast is the problem, maybe its just too good a cast, with too much cinematic baggage behind them that carries all sorts of expectations in itself.

I was surprised to see that it was directed by Joseph Kosinski,  of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion fame, as that in itself would suggest a big, spectacular and horrifying canvas would be put up on the screen but Kosinski seems to deliberately play against those expectations. Its just a different sort of movie than his previous films might suggest. Yeah, there’s those confounded expectations again.

But it isn’t an intimate character-driven piece either, possibly because those big-name actors, or that visually-adept director, aren’t exactly an arthouse cinema bunch. Its therefore caught somewhere in-between, and so intent on treating the real events and people caught up in them with proper due respect that the film just… exists, without really saying anything.

It reminds me rather a great deal of The 33, another film based on true events that impacted on a reasonably large group. While Only the Brave mostly centers upon Josh Brolin’s character, it also tries to flesh out the rest of  the Granite Mountain Hotshots that he leads in the firefighting, and like The 33, the film suffers from not having enough time, or perhaps the script isn’t finely honed enough, to do so many characters justice.

I don’t know, its really a strange one. Its a good film, but it just lacks that essential spark, if you’ll forgive one more fire metaphor. I’m tempted to suggest the issue may lie with the score, funnily enough. I just find myself thinking of the film Glory, and James Horner’s magnificent score. Sure the music and the film were perhaps overly manipulative but the combination of film and music involved me, made me feel something.  I didn’t really feel anything with Only the Brave; I enjoyed it and found it very worthwhile but it didn’t engage me emotionally. It might seem odd to suggest blame lies with the music score but film music isn’t what it used to be, and the industry has lost something of the genius of the likes of Goldsmith and Horner and that kind of film music, no longer in vogue, certainly worked back in the day.

So a missed opportunity then, unfortunately, but certainly a sincere enough effort.

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder3Here’s another case where my ignorance of past adaptations (1974 movie for one), and the original source material likely results in rosier remarks than might have been the case- I have no idea how honest it is to that source material, for one thing, or whether it takes diabolical liberties. Its a bit like someone who has never read a Robert E Howard story watching any of the Conan movies and judging them just as movies, ignorant of the fact that each of them ruinously ill-serve the original Howard stories and characters. Indeed, I’m not one for this whole murder-mystery genre at all, and have only recently in the last year or so watched any adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories. So I’m hardly qualified then. Bye.

Still here? Well then. One thing is for certain- this film is utterly gorgeous to look at. I saw it via streaming in HD on Amazon Video on a rental, but that is hardly doing the term ‘HD’ justice really. I cannot imagine (well I can, and it has me salivating) what this film looks like on Blu-ray or 4K UHD. The colour palette, lighting and production design are all exquisite. Of course it could also be argued that it is all overly fanciful and possibly even distracting, but I found the look of the film utterly charming and impressive, and yes quite cinematic. This is, at all times, clearly a ‘MOVIE’ and not at all the kind of thing you’d see from a Netflix Original- well, that seems to be the clear intent.  There is also the very modern trend of the film clearly setting itself up as the start of a possible franchise, with a not at all subtle lead-in to a sequel based on Death on the Nile.

murder2Equally impressive is the cast- a list of A-listers indeed and a throwback to the ‘Old Hollywood’ habit of throwing great casts at prestige films or novelty projects like Irwin Allen disaster movies. Kenneth Brannagh as the sleuth Poirot, of course, but also a list of suspects as esteemed as Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, and Johnny Depp (the wrap party must have been legendary) as well as a supporting cast no less impressive. There is something almost comforting about seeing so many recognisable faces hamming it up in this old-fashioned 1930s murder mystery.

And ‘hamming it up’ does seem to be the order of the day- it would be fair to suggest that only Brannagh himself really gets into it and chews up the scenery sufficiently. The rest of the cast rest on their laurels, mostly, as if just bringing their familiar faces on-set and saying their lines is going to be enough. Perhaps there is something to be said that the script hardly demands anymore of any of them, and as far as the huge talents at hand, most get wasted.

As a pleasant matinee diversion this film ticks all the boxes, and I can imagine, with its snowy vistas and starry cast, this film is destined to become a mainstay of Christmas schedules in years to come. Perhaps I should criticize it for lack of ambition and failing to really stretch either itself or any of its genre boundaries- the denouement may be faithful to the book, for instance, but I did feel it rather jumped the shark and threatened to spoil the whole experience. But would that be unfair complaining about the film when it should be the original author taken to task? Or does the film have a different solution to the mystery than the book did?

So yes, maybe I’m not at all qualified to measure the worth of this film. I will just say that I quite enjoyed it, distracted throughout, admittedly, by how lovely it looked and by each famous face that appeared onscreen. Certainly a guilty pleasure then.

murder1

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

3bill3Thank goodness for films that live up to their hype. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is pretty extraordinary- a fascinating comedy/drama mash-up that is more of a character piece then the procedural crime drama  I had expected. The film appears to be one thing and turn out to be something else entirely, something of a genius sleight of hand on director Martin McDonagh’s part. Its a welcome surprise and just one facet of a powerful and affecting film that is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother whose teenage daughter was raped and murdered several months ago, the police investigation of which has been ineffectual and hit a dead end. Hayes turns her frustrations and anger upon her local police department in an effort to get it to put some fresh effort into the case, renting three abandoned billboards to put some messages in order to embarrass sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. Its a play of misdirection- Willoughby isn’t the villain of the piece we might expect- he’s an honest and good officer with a poor department under him, particularly his racist and homophobic monster deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and the case really is a dead-end waiting for some stroke of luck that may never happen.

Hayes rages nevertheless, at odds with her townsfolk who rally to Willoughby’s side, partly because Willoughby is dying of cancer. Dixon lumbers around abusing his position of authority and several people are caught up in the wake of the conflict between Hayes and the police. In some ways it feels like a modern-day Western, Hayes a vigilante raging for justice and Dixon representing ignorance and a failed system of authority. With its biting one-liners and wry observations it  also feels very much like an episode of Fargo, and the film that the series is based on, which is doubly curious as McDormand starred in that Cohen brothers classic .

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURIThe film is that oddest of things- a comedy of tragedy, pain and desolation. Wonderfully, the film is less about that murder and the failed investigation and more about the characters caught up in Hayes loss and anger. It goes in unexpected directions and ends in a place that feels both right but also challenging and uncertain. I’ll avoid spoilers, but it does end very much like a Western, two characters threatening to take the law into their own hands as they ride off into the proverbial sunset. All the cast are very good, but Sam Rockwell in particular is pretty remarkable, almost stealing the film from McDormand. Dixon’s arc pushes credibility and really only works because Rockwell’s tricky performance saves some perhaps awkward writing.

Great film though, I really enjoyed it. Maybe its because it turned out to be something other than what I was expecting. Its so unusual to be take by surprise by films these days.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

dy1.jpgThis is a strange one, and perhaps one of those where what you get out of it depends upon how you approach it. Ostensibly a period drama, I went into it expecting something like a revisionary Jane Eyre, akin, as perhaps the title might suggest, to the rework of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off, but it still came as something of a surprise/shock.

The Shakespeare angle, you see, is something of a red herring. Actually based on an 1895 novel by Russian author Nikolai Leskov,  Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this film by William Oldroyd transplants the original book’s Russian locale to nineteenth century Northern England. Florence Pugh, who is pretty mesmerizing throughout,  plays Katherine, a young woman who is married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the son of a wealthy mine-owner,  Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who has arranged the marriage like some kind of land-deal. While we see the wedding service, we don’t see Alexander, the focus purely on Katherine who looks lost, a fish out of water, as if she has been transplanted to some other world she does not understand.  When we eventually do see Alexander, it is on the wedding night, which proves disastrous, the wedding unconsummated. And it all goes downhill from there- lies, betrayal, adultery, murder.

I have seen the film referred to as a Victorian Noir, and that pretty much nails it. This is a twisted, subversive tale that is part period drama and part horror tale. It isn’t perfect – much of the character motivations are too lightly skimmed over, so that the characters suddenly seem to take actions that are out of left-field and so don’t wholly convince. Overall, the film therefore feels rather disjointed- Pugh is, as I’ve noted, pretty mesmerizing and she easily dominates the whole thing, but even then, her own actions often feel unexplained at times and its hard to sympathize with her in the latter half. Initially she is clearly the victim but by turns she becomes the villain, utterly without any redemption at the end. I suppose that is perhaps the whole point of the film -and the Macbeth in the title- but it feels a little unearned. We don’t really get ‘into’ her psyche.

Certainly well worth a watch though.

It (2017)

itThe main issue I have with this film is that it isn’t actually scary. Sure, its a well-made film, decent cast (Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly, is the real standout and steals the movie from everyone – including the clown). I gather its  a sincere adaptation and has been rewarded by big, big box-office, but as far as horror films go, if scares and chills are the target, then this is just simply an abject failure. Maybe that’s the secret for its success at the box-office – its horror made palatable, made safe, made mundane. Hey-ho for the future of horror movies now that Hollywood has cottoned on to that one.

Okay. I have to admit, I’ve never read the original Stephen King novel. I had a spell in the early-eighties when I read much of the authors’ work up to that time- The Stand (my favourite), Christine, The Dead Zone, some others… I just never got around to It, and by the time I’d suffered through The Tommy knockers my interest with King had waned and I’d turned to Lovecraft and others for my horror-fiction kick. I’ve since returned to reading King’s work,mostly his latter material, but no, I never read It.

I’d never seen the previous tv miniseries adaptation either, somehow. People have often, over the years, remarked upon the tv adaptation as being great but for some reason it never got my attention enough to actually sit down and watch it. So this new film adaptation, that actually spreads the lengthy (standard King, then) novel across two films (there’s points there, surely, for the sheer bravery of shooting part one and waiting to see if audiences responded enough for a second helping) was rather akin to virgin territory to me.

My most overwhelming impression? Other than ‘where’s the scares?’ it would have to be ‘what was all the fuss?’ Its pretty much The Goonies for horror fans, albeit without the horror. I don’t know- maybe the film scared the bejeezus out of somebody somewhere but they must be of a pretty delicate disposition, surely. Or maybe I’m jut missing something. Wasn’t the clown supposed to be scary?

Maybe it was the CGI stuff. There did seem to be a lot of CGI. I’m not at all sure CGI trickery really works in horror movies, at least for me- it loses some of the more, well, analogue scares, the sense of reality, as much of the time when film-makers use CGI, subtlety isn’t exactly what they are aiming for. Or maybe it was all the standard King tropes that pattern so much of his fiction and their movie adaptations (I’ve seen more movies based on King’s work than actually read King’s work, like most people I suspect). Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. Or maybe, just maybe, this film isn’t really all its cracked up to be. Anyway, I’ll wait and see what happens in the upcoming part two before maybe finally turning my attention to the tv version from yesteryear.

Big Bad Mama (1974)

bbm6Wow, I really enjoyed this, but feel guilty for doing so. A bawdy sex-comedy/crime drama set during the American Depression, its a trashy Roger Corman b-movie from 1974 full of geeky pleasures, not least being Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and Alien‘s Captain Dallas, Tom Skerritt, featured in a film together. Its just so bizarre seeing them sharing scenes, Shatner with Star Trek a few years behind him and Skerritt with Alien a few years in his future. My inner geek screaming out ‘its Kirk and Dallas- together!’ as if its some majorly important cinematic event.

But there are plenty of other things going for it. For one thing, it stars Angie Dickinson in a genuinely great ‘I’m better than this movie’ performance from just before her role in the seminal ’70s tv show Police Woman– but I’ve never seen her in anything quite like this before. Although in her early forties at this point, she features in several nude scenes in this film which get progressively more graphic as the film progresses- it’d be a brave career move for any woman today, never mind one back in 1974, which seems an unusual decision as she was already a well-known actress, but it probably makes this one her more famous/infamous movies. The film also features genre stalwart Dick Miller, who is always a pleasure to see on film, as an increasingly frustrated FBI chases our heroine throughout the movie.

bbmSo anyway, we’re in Texas in 1932, and Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) is so frustrated by her life of poverty and wanting more for her two daughters, that she stops her youngest daughter’s wedding during the wedding service.  They race away from the Church with her bootlegger lover but during an encounter with two FBI agents, Wilma’s lover is killed. Wilma and her daughters carry on her dead lover’s bootlegging business and progress onto an ever-daring crime spree. They get caught up with a bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt) and they commit several robberies together, and Wilma and Diller become lovers. During a later robbery, Wilma meets a charming but disreputable gambler William Baxter (Shatner) who falls into the gang and replaces Diller as Wilma’s lover. Diller is annoyed but turns his attentions to Wilma’s daughters, eventually bedding them both and getting the youngest pregnant. Wilma decides she has to make one last con to set her daughters up for life which involves kidnapping a wealthy heiress, but the FBI are closing in.

bbm1So there’s lots of sex, and lots of violent gun-play and chases. Its tawdry stuff filmed with a very low budget but it somehow has a lot of charm too, particularly from its ‘seventies feel with lots of actors familiar to anyone who saw much ‘seventies American television shows. Indeed, its a surprisingly strong cast all round, but I have to wonder what Shatner was doing in this. He is very good though, and cast rather against type, as a no-good scoundrel who’s a coward and a liar, albeit hindered by a not very good wig. I suppose Star Trek was years behind him and was just an old sixties tv show at that point; back then the show was clearly in the past and never going to have any future and Shatner had to get acting gigs wherever he could. There is good fun to be had here though- considering Kirk’s weekly amorous encounters in Trek, its a bit of a chuckle here to see him in bed with Dickinson and she declining his advances in favour of a book.

bbm5Skerritt by then had a few minor movies behind him but was still very much trying to work his way up the ladder to stardom by whatever role he could get, and while there’s little here to suggest what awaited him, there is indeed some fun seeing him being such a lothario bank-robber, bedding first the mother and then her two children. Career-wise the best was yet to come for both of the male leads, and of course Dickinson herself was soon to land a major acting part in her television show Police Woman. So this exploitation b-movie is almost a time-capsule, a moment in time in all three careers that stands out almost like some kind of reality check- actors have to eat, as they say.

Big Bad Mama is currently available ‘free’ to Amazon Prime members, and I stumbled onto it completely by accident, having never even heard of it before- maybe this is the biggest plus for streaming services such as this. There’s lots of old rubbish on Amazon but a few little gems like this one that I would miss completely if not for them sitting hidden away for me to stumble on. After a long day at work it made for a perfect Friday night viewing, its not a great movie by any means -its pretty lousy, really, but the amazing cast and the unique style of those old ‘seventies movies makes it an enjoyable 90 minutes (the cinematography alone is lovely). I see there’s even a sequel on Amazon Prime, that was released in 1987, but considering how the first film ends I cannot figure out how Dickinson manages to star in it too- something tells me I’m going to have to find out by pressing that ‘watch now’ button some night soon…

The Limehouse Golem (2017)

golemThe Limehouse Golem has a problem: I guessed its secrets fairly early on. I guessed who the Golem was and why the murders were happening. For a film that is centrally a Victorian murder mystery, that’s something of a problem, especially if I’m not alone in rumbling the game so early (otherwise I suppose I’ve watched far too many movies and its getting too easy to ‘read’ them).

Fortunately for this film, there are pleasures here besides that central mystery. Set in a benighted, misty Victorian London the film is sumptuously staged; rich in gaudy colours and vividly ruddy murders, with a production design to immerse in really. This is, to be sure, a filthy London that you swear you could almost smell. Not quite a Tarantino take on Charles Dickens, but its halfway there and gives a suggestion of what that might be like if ever the Ripper took Tarantino’s muse.

Of course, whatever the films faults, Bill Nighy leading a movie is something to be cherished, frankly, and he’s in fine form here as John Kildare, a detective brought in to work on a murder case that seems doomed to failure in just the same way as the Jack the Ripper case would in real London a few years later- the parallels between the cases are deliberate throughout. Kildare is an outsider in the force and knows full well that he is a scapegoat for a nervous London and furious press. As he investigates the brutal and eleborate murders he becomes convinced that his case is linked to that of an imprisoned Music Hall singer, ‘Little Lizzie’ Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) who is on trial for the poisoning of her failed playwright husband, John Cree (Sam Reid). Kildare is certain she is innocent and that by proving it he can also solve the mystery of the Golem’s identity, but time is of the essence, and Elizabeth destined for the gallows soon.

The cast is pretty great, particularly Cooke who has a great charm and charisma as she struggles to succeed in a man’s world. Sam Reid is good as her slippery no-good cad of a romantic interest/husband who is also Nighy’s Golem suspect. Music Hall superstar (and Elizabeth’s friend and mentor, as well as another of Nighy’s Golem suspects) Dan Leno is played with fragile grace by Douglas Booth. The rest of the supporting cast are commendable too- indeed, the problem with the film isn’t the production values or the cast or the direction. Its the script that awkwardly seems to telegraph too much.

It also suffers by comparison to stuff like the (sadly cancelled) Penny Dreadful television series that shares its pulpish gaudy charms; and also the period detective dramas of Peaky Blinders. Back when I first saw the trailer for this film I thought, who would want to make a film of this and why would they think it would prove a success at the cinema in particular?  There is throughout a feel of redundancy, that maybe we’ve been here before, and to be fair, those television shows have production values arguably equal those of this movie with the benefits of longer airtime for character development etc. Maybe this is just the wrong time for a movie about Jack the Ripper-style Victorian murders. Another period BBC series, sure, but a movie?

But whatever my caveats, its enjoyable enough and the performances shine, so certainly its well worth a watch.