Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomicClearly an example of style over substance, I nonetheless really enjoyed this one- no doubt partly because I enjoyed the John Wick films so much and this has a distinct whiff of being John Wick from a female perspective (oddly timely, I guess, if you can look past the sexual objectifying thats going on throughout). Certainly, from where I’m looking, Charlize Theron is far easier on the eye than Keanu Reeves (can I get away with mentioning that in this day and age without offending someone?), and she handles the physicality of the role very well indeed- she looks gorgeous and you rather believe she’s deadly too the way she carries herself in a fight Those fights are well choreographed and pack a real punch (sic), and the film succeeds, in just the same way as the first John Wick  did, to revitalise the action flick genre. Seems the era of Bruce, Arnie and Sly is well and truly over, and there’s a new boy and girl in town. Indeed, recalling Theron’s film-stealing turn in the recent Mad Max reboot, she’s scored again here in spite of originally seeming more of a serious actress than an action girl. Ridley perhaps miscast her in Prometheus, I think she’d have carried that film better as Dr Elizabeth Shaw on the evidence of her physicality here.

Atomic Blonde looks and sounds quite gorgeous, shot on digital with an ultra-stylized look (neon-drenched one minute, dreary grey the next) that will be familiar to most- when it ‘pops’ it ‘POPS’, and the 1980s setting allows lots of music from the period to be liberally applied to every scene. As might be expected, the plot is fairly thin -it is set mostly in East Germany of 1989 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and both sides of the Iron curtain are after a list of agents that threatens to extend the Cold War if it gets in the wrong hands. To be honest, the plots almost a macguffin in the best Hitchcock fashion, as it didn’t really matter,  and to be honest I didn’t quite understand the logic of the films twists and turns at all.  Its a Russian list which a Russian is selling to the West, but the West doesn’t want the Russians to get it because it could cause the deaths of lots of Western assets. But surely its Russian spies on a Russian list, not a list of Western assets that the Russians need to get hold of, and there’s a double-agent on the list who wants to derail the whole deal in the most long-winded way and there’s a French female operative who doesn’t really fit in but she’s just there for Charlize to enjoy some lesbian sex thrills with… I don’t know. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter, it just sets up lots of fights and stunts and double-crosses. There’s a last epilogue twist that is perhaps one twist too far (actually there’s two twists there -first she’s a double agent working for the Russians and then she’s a double agent working for Langley, and neither makes sense).  Its no classic spy flick, anyway. but I suppose it’s really just an action flick posing as a spy flick, so maybe it gets a pass.

Besides, the cast, while somewhat wasted, is pretty great- John Goodman, Toby Jones, James McAvoy all ably support Theron who is, yes, great in the main role. Its hardly demanding stuff but it is what it is. Complaining about it would be like bitching about a Star Wars film being all effects and wasted actors…. oh, wait…

I expect this film was designed, as so many are these days, to launch a franchise and I certainly wouldn’t mind another outing for Charlize in another one of these.  I suppose that depends on its box office, so we’ll see. A better script that develops her character beyond the ‘beautiful-but-deadly’ protagonist demonstrated here would be nice to see.


Salyut 7 (2017)

salyutcThe image above tells you all you really need to know about the Russian film Salyut 7: visually it’s quite astonishing, throwing images such as that above, depicting the rescue mission launched into space breaking out of the clouds, up onto the screen with as much gloss and sophistication as most of the visual effects of Gravity, the previous high-water mark for space visual effects.  Its really quite astonishing how the quality of visual effects is getting so ubiquitous- I remember when there was a huge difference between the effects work of, say ILM or EEG, and everyone else, back in the day. Computer imaging and the presumed use of the same software packages has been quite a leveller, and no longer do films necessarily have to boast huge budgets to get premium visuals.

Salyut 7 was something of a surprise discovery for me, just stumbling upon it on Amazon Prime. Curiously, it even appears there in two formats- as a two-hour movie, and also as a two-part drama of two one-hour episodes. Imagine showing BR2049 as a two- or three-part miniseries. I don’t know why, must be some vagary of the films financing and distribution- I see it has recently turned up on blu-ray in some territories (Germany even getting it in 4K).  I think it would be a pity if here in the UK the film is relegated to an almost VOD release rather than the more prestigious limited-theatrical or disc-based release that would get it wider attention, and which it deserves. That said, kudos to Amazon for picking it up. This thing feels like it came from nowhere and I lapped it up.

salyutaBased on true events that occured back in 1985, in which a daring mission was launched to rescue the Salyut 7 space station that had suddenly suffered a fatal malfunction, this film is, literally, like a Russian version of Apollo 13 complete with Gravity-level visuals. If that doesn’t wet your appetite then this is not for you. Its a riveting and powerful film of human triumph over adversity. Those Gravity-like visuals really intensify the you-are-there feeling, greatly enabling the tension of the events and hinting at the possibilities for other spaceflight dramas in the future. I have always maintained that a definitive film about the Apollo missions would be spectacular and cannot fathom why such a work has never been made up to now, other than the superlative HBO series From The Earth to the Moon (a series oddly overlooked these days which really deserves a HD release). 

Salyut 7 is also, alas, perhaps too slavish in its attempt to mirror the success of Apollo 13 as a dramatic work, suffering from the same faults that Ron Howard’s film did in its targeting of drama and emotional involvement, and following too closely the narrative structure and tropes of the earlier film. I noticed that the surnames of the two cosmonauts launched on the rescue mission are different to the real men, as if to excuse the dramatic license used to ramp up the tensions and their soap-opera backgrounds (arguments and conflicts that likely never really happened, a ‘sin’ that Apollo 13 committed also). That said, I guess you have to forgive dramatic license- these are films, dramatisations, rather than documentaries, afterall.  At its best, this film actually recalls the successes of The Right Stuff.

The cast is pretty good, the film is naturally in Russian with English subtitles, I’m certain some nuances of performance escaped me, but the language certainly enables the sense of time and place, that, say, a European movie with an English cast could never capture. The music fits awkwardly, however, part ambient noise (another nod to Gravity) and part overly-bombastic orchestrations that feel rather OTT- indeed the score is one of the films few stumbles. The Russian source music (rock songs etc) used in a similar way to the songs in, say, The Martian, really feels amusingly amateur too, maybe it’s all a bit too Eurovision for my tastes. I suppose that raises thoughts about the localisation of films, the dubbing/subtitling/use of music licenses. Most people will likely have no issue with it.

salyutdOn the whole though, this is a great space movie. And two days ago I’d never even heard of it. I thought this was the Information Age. What a strange, strange world- the Russians should hire another publicity company, maybe. In any case, anybody who enjoyed either Apollo 13 or Gravity will likely really enjoy this film, and I’m sure many will be surprised at just how technically adept the film is too. If only the script could have been quite as authentic as those visuals are, with less of the hyperbolic dramatics that cinema so often demands.  I’d certainly like to see a disc release here in the UK, I’d be tempted to pick it up as I’m sure it would only improve on a blu-ray presentation.

At the very least it’s a pleasant experience not being assaulted with explosions and aliens in a modern space movie- I’d love to see more like this, and it’s nice to see Russian cinema demonstrating its ability to measure up to Hollywood and give us a different flavour. I wonder if the time has come for Russian cinema to return to Solaris?


The Mummy (2017)

mum2Oh dear. There is certainly something supernatural lurking within this movie, but that’s mostly Tom Cruise’s uncanny refusal to show much sign of ever aging. He could easily pass of as -and likely does in this movie too, though it’s never stated- as a guy in his mid/late ‘thirties, rather than someone who is actually 55. On the one hand, it’s a hugely impressive feat that he can carry off such physical roles with apparent grace. On the other, its a little disconcerting that his love interest in this film, English actress Annabelle Wallis, who is 33, could conceivably be young enough to be his daughter. Well, I guess that sort of thing is nothing new in Hollywood movies, but I do wonder how odd it might have looked had his love-interest been played by an actress of the same age as Cruise.

Related to this, here again I was partly distracted by a familiar face, knowing that I’d seen Annabelle Wallis (who is very good here, by the way, in a fairly underwritten role that she is clearly too good for), somewhere before. It was only after watching this film in its entirety though  that I finally discovered that she had been in that operatic brutalizer of historical fact, the tv series The Tudors, in which she damn near stole the show as Jane Seymour. But that ‘where have I seen her before’ mystery was rather distracting.

In all honesty though, it’s easy to get distracted by anything when watching something as fairly dire as this woefully ill judged addition to the list of Mummy films. You have a genuine superstar (whose star, admittedly, may be on the wane) in Tom Cruise in the lead, a great star-in-the-making with Annabelle Wallis, a fairly solid supporting cast that includes Russell Crowe doing his best Nick Fury, with a budget of $125 million to keep the blockbuster spectacle top-notch. You then saddle it with a reprehensible turkey of a script that makes Tobe Hooper’s Life Force look like a genuine classic.

Who writes this stuff? There is this magical dagger with a red stone in its hilt which, if used to kill ‘Chosen One’ Tom Cruise, will bring about the End Of The World by ushering in Egyptian God of Evil Set into the world. Russell Crowe wants to avert this calamity by, er, killing Tom Cruise with this magical dagger with a red stone in its hilt. Tom Cruise ultimately averts this crisis by, er, killing himself with this magical dagger with a red stone in its hilt. And then, er, smashing that red stone so no-one can do this again.  Somehow, instead of dying and his body being immortaly possessed by the Evil God Set, Tom then becomes, well, Tom with the ability to resurrect the dead whilst setting off on a quest to cure himself of said immortality (that’s another movie, and one we aren’t ever going to see, I suspect).

Maybe i missed something. To be honest, Tom was pretty much immortal from the time his military plane was crashed into the English countryside by Egyptian Princess/Mummy in residence Ahmanet. Instead of his body being smashed to pieces and burnt to a crisp he instead wakes up in the morgue perfectly fine without a scratch. Having therefore demonstrated that he has gone all Captain Scarlett he is simply allowed to walk out of the morgue without any consternation from doctors or staff and goes to the nearest pub for a drink.

At this point in the proceedings I realised I was indeed in Life Force territory, not only regards the nonsensical plot but in how Ahmanet sucks the life-force out of her victims and recruits them as zombie stooges. And also in how Ahmanet has gotten ‘into’ Tom’s head in a similar fashion to how the space vampire got into our hero Tom Carlsen’s (hey, another ‘Tom’) head in Life Force with all sorts of head-spinning logic twists ensuing. Infact, the LIfe Force nods just keep on coming, they even manage to put London under threat again. They throw in some American Werewolf In London too, with Tom’s best mate coming back as a ghost to chat with him a few times. Its a real mess of a movie, a spiritual successor to Life Force indeed.

Biggest mystery is what in the world Tom Cruise is doing in this movie. He’s a canny film producer and surely can sniff out turkeys such as this at the script stage. Perhaps he was simply more interested in launching another film franchise rather than, ahem, a decent film. But this is such a bad choice for him, its weird. Its so bad, why wasn’t that obvious from the script? How do films like this get made?

The hell with this rubbish. I’ve already devoted too much time to it writing this post. This film is such a major misfire it actually makes the DC films look good. Its really that bad- I suppose the one good thing is that’s that for the Dark Universe series then, whilst we’ll be inflicted by DC movies for a few years yet.


Detroit (2017)

detroit1Here we have director Kathryn Bigelow with another intense exercise in film-making- Detroit is a searing drama shot in docudrama style, all shaky-cam, unsteady focus, crash-zooms and the like designed to induce an almost tangible, you-are-there feel. People’s mileage for this kind of film-making varies, as it can get irritating and feel overly forced/manipulative (I’m using the ‘m-word’ again, as if films were ever anything other than manipulative). There is the unfortunate side-effect that this deliberately disorientating approach can actually turn people off as it can become tiresome, particularly in a film such as Detroit that runs close to two and a half hours long. The narrative can also inevitably suffer, too, as the handheld approach threatens to infer more chaos than control unless the editor can carefully reign things in. I’m sure it must be tricky making films such as this make much sense in the editing suite.

For myself, I did enjoy the film very much -if enjoy is quite the right word regards a film which concerns itself with racism and injustice, particularly as it based upon true events and sadly remains as topical now as ever. Usually all that forced shaky-cam/unsteady focus stuff wears me down but I must say the film kept me engrossed enough that I didn’t really feel particularly negative about it. Whether it actually made the film better is up for some debate though. The film has a powerful enough story and great cast/performances that a more traditionally-staged film would have been, I suspect, just as successful. Moreover, the structure of the films narrative might itself have been better served had it been bookended by the courtroom drama that concludes the piece. A grounded introduction through introductory courtroom proceedings might have helped viewers better understand what was going on and what the true focus of the film is (the riots themselves are largely just in the background), and some ensuing mystery from multiple viewpoints of the events might have given the film more drama as witnesses described what they heard and saw.

That said, this is a modern film and this seems to be how so many modern films are made now- fast, overly-processed with the shaky-cam and various focus tricks, its an intense approach and quite successful but dangerously close to the style overloading the substance. Detroit treads that line fairly well and doesn’t cross it too often, but I’d have liked the opportunity to see a calmer, more traditional film of this subject.  Nonetheless, one can’t deny that this is quite powerful film-making and is a riveting albeit uncomfortable few hours viewing.

Hounds of Love (2016)


Hounds of Love is a highly traumatic modern horror. Based on a true series of events in Perth, Australia in 1986/1987, it is doubly disturbing because the serial killers that the film centres upon are a married couple. Its one thing for a film’s sick bastard/killer/rapist to be a man, but another for a woman to being aiding and abetting and even joining in on the awful depravations that ensue. Somehow it feels doubly wrong, doubly abhorrent, and while the film does seem to try to rationalise what makes the wife, Evelyn White (a standout performance by Emma Booth) such a subversive accomplice, it is nonetheless guaranteed to leave a sour taste in your mouth. Indeed, this is one of those few horror films -alongside stuff like Texas Chainsaw Massacre– that really lingers in your head afterwards, horrifying not for being particularly graphic in this case (Hounds of Love is far more restrained than Massacre or other ‘torture porn’ horrors, etc) but rather for offering an awful glimpse of the grim filthy underbelly of modern suburbia.

I’d even go so far to say that the genius -if it is genius- of this film is that very restraint, because the worst things that happen do so behind closed doors, and it is the viewers imagination, triggered by the sounds of screams etc and visual clues that preempt the sequences (a box and its contents is glimpsed, as are the blood-sodden aftermaths of earlier events) that does the most disturbing work. What is suggested in horror films is most often far more effective than graphic display.

The film is also a very intriguing study of domination and a need to belong, to be loved and have purpose (if I’m ‘reading’ it right).  John White (Stephen Curry) is bullied by neighbourhood thugs who he owes money to- his sense of powerlessness and weakness in that situation seems to be externalised by his emotional and physical bullying of his wife Evelyn. Evelyn is coming off some kind of dysfunctional relationship in which she lost her two children, and feels ‘saved’ by John and utterly dependant on him, so much so that she facilitates his grisly desires for kidnapping and raping/torturing/killing teenage girls. I don’t think for one minute that the film ever really suggests we should try to empathise or sympathise with these two sick killers, but it does offer some kind of nuance to what could quite easily be a straight slasher/exploitation flick. There’s much more going on here. In any case, this is certainly a superior horror film.

One point I must make- the dog.

Don’t mess with the dog, man. Thats where I draw the line. I’ll watch many things in film and forgive pretty much anything, but violence to dogs, even if it is offscreen and suggested? Well, that’s just too far and has to be punished. I don’t care who a character is, what they done, what they reasons were, they got it coming if only for canine mistreatment. Thankfully, the shit who crosses the line here gets his just comeuppance. Otherwise this film would be relegated to the ‘never again’ list, like Tyrannosaur.

Anyway, just thought I’d get that out of the way. Torture porn is one thing, but hurting a dog? Get out of here.




Elle (2016)

elle1This proved to be quite a disappointment. I’ve been a huge fan of Paul  Verhoeven’s films in the past (although I never watched Showgirls) but this one just left me cold. Strangely, it was widely praised by critics with great reviews, so much so I wonder if I completely missed something.

My issue with the film was its wholly unrealistic characters and character behaviour. I just couldn’t get a grip of any of them- eccentricity is one thing, but this was something else, almost a bunch of loons with madly implausible histories etc. I should have realised it wasn’t for me from the start. The film opens with Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) being raped in her home by an attacker whose face is hidden by a ski mask. Once the attacker is finished with her and leaves, Michèle recovers and cleans her apartment of the mess and breakages from the assault, evidently of a mind not to call the police. Later, she casually tells some freinds at a meal that she was raped. She seems distant, almost casual about it.

She won’t contact the police because her father was a mass murderer who, when she was ten, went through their street killing neighbours and their children- I believe 27 in all. Whoa, I’m thinking, there goes any credibility, this thing’s moving into some other place here. I don’t know what I was expecting Elle to be – an arthouse Deathwish/ Kill Bill, maybe, I don’t know. But at least some serious film about a woman dealing with being the victim of violence and feeling empowered to do something about it. In a way, this is that film, but it just goes nuts doing it. I mean, people thought Basic Instinct was daft OTT nonsense but this is something else.

Michèle has not seen her father since he was put in prison some 39 years ago, much to her mother’s disappointment, but when her mother dies and her father fails at his latest parole hearing, Michèle relents and decides to see him. When she arrives she discovers that her father has killed himself in his cell, presumably because he had been told she was finally going to visit. She sees his corpse and mutters something along the lines of “I killed you at last!”  Its nuts.

Eventually Michèle discovers the identity of her assailant -after he returns and attempts to rape her again-  and then she goes to his home and has violent sex with him in his basement. Indeed, she even continues some kind of relationship/affair with him behind the back of his wife, a woman she considers a friend. Meanwhile, she is also having an affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner, Anna. When she later admits to Anna what is going on, Anna is at first enraged but later suggests she move in with Michèle and resume their friendship now that Robert has left them both. The wife of the rapist, who is devoutly Catholic,  eventually discovers what her husband has been doing and  apologises to  Michèle, suggesting she was well aware of her husbands twisted desires and proclivities and was fine with it as long as she wasn’t on the receiving end.

Now, you’re either reading this thinking, ‘hey thats so weird it sounds like it might be good’, or like me, you’re thinking, ‘what a load of mad shite’.  In some ways its so up its own arse with some kind of sophisticated study of gender roles and what women are in society that maybe I have indeed missed the whole point of it. I just found it impossible to take its totally far-fetched characters and character histories/behaviours seriously- it was almost stretching over into farce. There was always something self-knowing and tongue-in-cheek about the sensationalist aspects of Basic Instinct, like a HItchcock film on steroids or something, but Elle tries to dress everything up as normal and humdrum, no matter how bizarre things get. If this is all normal for people living in France, well, no offence, but I’m staying this side of the Channel.

I haven’t even mentioned that Michèle’s mother is having an affair with a man likely fifty years her junior, or that Michèle’s ex-husband, a writer,  is in a relationship with a younger woman who it turns out has mistaken him for some other author and promptly dumps him when she realises. Nor have I mentioned Michèle’s son, an ex-drug dealer who is in a relationship that Michèle disapproves of, and who is clearly not the father of the child that his girlfriend gives birth to. Or the fact that Michèle and her friend Anna own a videogame studio. Where does the madness end?

Only at the closing titles, my friend. Only at the closing titles.

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

mr banks

This film has been languishing at the bottom of the digital pile in my Tivo since Christmas 2016 when it originally aired on the BBC. Why exactly it has taken so long for me to finally get around to watching it is quite beyond me, and there’s still a few more films sitting in that digital pile. Well, there you go- something else to concern myself about; not just a pile of physical-format films on disc that I have yet to see, I now have films waiting in my Tivo to be seen. As well as those films on my Amazon Prime watchlist. My world, it seems, is full of content waiting to be watched.  It almost makes me yearn for the old days of three tv channels, no video recorders and lots of time free for reading and everything else that ‘normal’ lives were concerned with.

Televisions used to be mono, 4:3 and black and white. Now they are large widescreen stereo monsters that sit there demanding your time. Our eyes endlessly drawn to them, bewitched by them as if by some arcane spell. So many channels. So many films/discs//apps… on my Amazon fire-stick the other night I discovered some kind of ‘fireplace tv’ thing, a seasonal offering that was a single hour-long shot of a log-fire burning. I actually watched it for something like twenty minutes before I realised I was going mad.

None of which has anything to do with Saving Mr Banks, which I finally go around to watching having allowed it to sit in my Tivo over a year. And what do you know, I feel a bit of a fool having waited so long, because this was an utterly charming, warm and witty movie that I really enjoyed.

I do have a confession to make- the only Mary Poppins I have ever seen was General Leia doing her magical spaceflight in The Last Jedi. Other than a few clips many years ago on the old Disneytime holiday specials that the BBC used to air at Easter etc, I have never seen anything of Mary Poppins, certainly not the whole film, and I have no idea what the original story is. So maybe I was at some disadvantage watching Saving Mr Banks, which is ostensibly the story of how Walt Disney convinced author P L Travers to allow him to make the movie Mary Poppins.

Like, I suspect, the Netflix drama The Crown, this film is a work of fiction masquerading as fact, or at the very least, a dramatic work in which the line between fiction and fact is dimly blurred.  Tom Hanks is a very genial, very charming Walt Disney and Emma Thompson a suitably cantankerous P L Travers albeit rather beautiful and charming.There it is again- the word ‘charming’: it’s as if the poster for the film should have read ‘Walt Disney presents Saving Mr Banks: Charming! Charming! Charming!’

But it is. And maybe there is more truth to the film than my old cynical soul would have me believe. Is it possible that all this actually happened and that there is far more to the original Mary Poppins story and movie than anyone would have believed? Maybe the simple truth is that it doesn’t matter. Saving Mr Banks, true story or Disney myth, is a great heartwarming (bypass that bloody word ‘charming’ for once)  movie that is elegantly written and directed and really has a pretty great cast in top form.  I could have looked it all up on the internet and discovered the truth of it, but really, I don’t care. Saving Mr Banks was really quite good. And ultimately, that’s all that really matters.

Besides, adult fairy tales, which is, I suspect, what this film really is, can be fact or fiction, it doesn’t have to mean anything or be validated by truth. It’s a damn fine story, regardless, and films could do with more of those, I think.

Now then, what else is lurking within my Tivo…?