On the trail of a complete and utter b—–d.

rogue1Rogue Agent, 2022, 115 mins, Netflix

Devastatingly handsome, smooth-talking bastard Robert Freegard (James Norton) is a bartender one minute, a car salesman the next, but the job’s are just a cover, as he’s really an MI5 spy. He recruits agents to assist him in his war against terrorists, following him around the country, sometimes falling in love with him, usually giving all their money to him. But he’s too good to be true, girls. He’s a fake. He’s a conman. This guy is the Hannibal Lecter of Tall Stories, a sociopath with a brilliant intellect, an uncanny ability to charm women, sleep with ’em and scam ’em-  utterly irredeemable. The T-1000 of smooth-talkers, the police cannot stop him. Only a woman can: Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), one of his victims who loses a fortune to him and then abandons her career as a lawyer in order to show the police how to do their job and bring Freegard down before further vulnerable women are conned by him.

There is a type of movie which… well, a type of movie that holds a certain philosophy, which is that all men are either bastards, or quite incompetent. This is one of those movies. To be fair, the bad guy is indeed a total utter bastard, and shockingly, its all based on a true story. But… well, you have to take everything with a wee pinch of salt. Rogue Agent is unfortunately blunt at times: especially with regards men being incompetent, whether it be a father giving away the family fortune in a vain attempt to help his wayward daughter, or a detective tasked with tracking Freegard down. When a film casts Clem Fandango from Toast of London (Shazad Latif) as a witless police detective who can only bring Freegard down through the help of Alice and another woman, FBI Special Agent Sandy Harland (Edwina Findley), well, while it may be a man’s world, its perhaps just as well that sisters are doing it for themselves.

I suppose it could almost qualify as a genre, maybe: just name any movie in which the men are useless and it takes a woman to save the day (hello, Disney/Marvel etc). Anyway, this is one of those movies, and they usually ruffle my feathers but in this case, I’m with the ladies. This ‘rogue agent’ is a complete and utter bastard. Based rather incredibly, as I have mentioned, on a true story, it concerns the antics of conman Robert Freegard, who posed as an MI5 agent to trick, coerce, kidnap, seduce and rob his victims who were usually -albeit not exclusively- female.

Its a great, stranger-then-fiction story that deserves a better film; Rogue Agent is nowhere near as sophisticated as it should be. Norton is very good as Freegard, albeit he’s inevitably more beautiful and masculine than the real Freegard was, but the film never tries to explain where he came from, or why he does what he does- he remains an enigma, unknowable. Likewise, Arterton is possibly ill-served by an underwritten character- again, a very beautiful person, the films only indication that she’s somehow vulnerable to Freegard’s antics is that she smokes a lot; I mean, that’s as sophisticated as it gets- we can tell she’s a little unhappy and susceptible to a mans attention because she smokes too much.

I appreciate I’ve possibly overdrawn the ‘beautiful characters’ angle, but really, for a film with such a bizarrely fantastical story, its a shame that it pushes over the edge of implausibility even further by making the two stars so pretty and, well, perfect. I can see why casting a guy who can be as smooth as James Bond might make his skills as a conman seem more plausible and its possibly sexist of me to suggest that Arterton is too gorgeous for the role, but when she dresses up for her first date with and she see a Bond Girl in the mirror… Agh. Maybe that’s just me.

So anyway, not a great film but not a bad one either, certainly worth a watch if only to experience the totally stranger-than-fiction story that will leave you quite incredulous, especially when you finally learn what happened to Freegard afterwards. Be careful out there, ladies.

Mr Jones

mr jonesA pretty grim and depressing film, mainly because of how timely it seems to be. This is a film that examines the lies of politics, the schemes of bureaucracy, and the power (or lack of) of truth- and moreover the importance of that truth. In a world in which truth seems to be defined by what is being repeated often enough by those in power, and in which investigative journalism seems to be becoming increasingly marginalised, films such as this are all the more important and welcome.

James Norton is in particularly fine form here -indeed, I don’t think I’ve seen him better- as Gareth Jones, a courageous Welsh journalist who risked his life and liberty to investigate and bring to the world’s attention Stalin’s Holodomor- a man-made famine decried afterwards as an act of genocide -within Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, in which millions of Ukrainians perished. The sequences within the wintry wastes of the Ukraine, with Jones walking dumbly past frozen bodies along the road, or his horror as he finds dead people in abandoned houses, are brutal and harrowing. The real horror, however, is in the reaction of Western powers: if I were charitable, I would suggest that they were distracted by Hitler’s rise in Germany and what that spelt for the immediate future of Europe, but on the other hand, its a damning indictment of the necessary evils and blinkered vision of diplomacy, history offering us a bleak hindsight.

I wouldn’t suggest this film is perfect- indeed, its possibly far from it, mainly its perhaps being just too earnest in its efforts to denounce the wrongs of those who should have known better or acted differently,  and in championing the bravery and efforts of Gareth Jones, whose passion for truth would ultimately doom him just a few years later (the film alleges his murder was an act of revenge by Soviet Intelligence). Those sequences of wintry apocalypse in the Ukraine wastes are the gripping centre-point of the film, and nothing afterwards measures up to them- indeed, its those wastes that linger in the memory like some distraction through the remainder of the film and afterwards. Like Peterloo, another film that reveals a possibly forgotten part of history,  Mr Jones doesn’t really feel worthy of the task (although this film is much better than that one).

It could also be argued the editing of the film undermines it, that the film is too long – and interludes with George Orwell and his Animal Farm are well-intended but ill-judged and awkwardly implemented, perhaps better left on the cutting-room floor- but ultimately this films subject matter is so worthy it feels churlish to really criticise its shortcomings. Yes, its blatantly a ‘message’ movie, a lesson from history that feels like it stumbles when it should really soar, but it certainly deserves to be seen and allow us to reflect on the times we are living in.

Mr Jones is available on digital platforms and DVD and Blu-ray.

Flatliners (2017)

flat1I’m sitting here feeling somewhat numb. What can I possibly write about this new edition of Flatliners? It feels about as pointless as the film itself. I expected it would be bad, but it turns out it’s worse than I had imagined. Frankly, life is too short, but here goes, I’ll try keep this brief-

I remember watching the 1990 original of Flatliners and thinking it was pretty good at the time- I saw it on VHS rental, so what, that’s 25+years ago now, and I can’t recall watching it again since, as it was pretty forgettable really, the most notable thing about it being the cast (Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon), who all went on to bigger better things. The set-up (medical students deliberately flatline/kill themselves for a few minutes prior to being resuscitated in order to study/discover what happens after death), is daft but full of potential- I remember hoping for something like Brainstorm, a film that would offer an answer to the inevitable questions: is there a Heaven, is there a Hell, or is there Nothing? At least Brainstorm, for all its flaws, had suggested an answer, albeit just really offering familiar religious iconography in doing so, but hey, it’s one of my guilty pleasures and it’s a decent movie. But Flatliners just ducked the questions like a coward, afraid to upset anyone in the audience and offered up guilt-trips instead, but hey, that’s show business, and I believe it made lots of money (more than Brainstorm, certainly).

Incredibly, this new Flatliners makes the exact same mistake but compounds it by featuring a mostly uninteresting cast of unconvincing and bland characters with a script that is shockingly inept. Its terrible, really, not that I should perhaps be surprised, but really, the stupidity is what’s most shocking. Ellen Page’s character flatlines and has an out-of-body ‘experience’ of rising up out of the hospital into the sky above it, afterwards convincing her colleagues by daft nonsense like “I flew above the roof of the hospital- I’ve never seen the roof of the hospital before!” as if thats some kind of proof. Suddenly she’s super-smart and can also play the piano, but these sudden bursts of knowledge and creativity, a catalyst for others of the group to give flatlining a go, is subsequently ditched as a plotpoint in favour of jump-scares and standard horror tropes. Religious imagery seems to have been consciously avoided in order to not question any audience belief-system. Its therefore completely anemic and bloodless and boring, certainly to me. And none of it makes any sense- the film suggests that everything is happening in each person’s mind, like a guilt-trip for past transgressions, but this does not explain how Ellen Pages character gets dragged across the floor of her apartment or how James Norton’s character gets stabbed in the hand by a knife. Its preposterous and silly nonsense that falls apart with any thought.

But you know, it really is so typical of the bullshit modern films have become. The characters are all beautiful and rich. They are all students, but one drives a new car (minus plates) another rides a big motorbike, one of them lives in a big apartment, another in a luxurious home, another lives on a bloody yacht for goodness sake. After a cursory glance at fancy 3D graphics on a laptop following the first experiment, they follow the further flatline experiments by going to rave parties or dances, getting drunk or having sex, they don’t seem to delve into the successive medical results or ponder What It All Means or worry about getting a night’s sleep before attending med school the next day. And don’t get me started about how fully-functioning and totally unmonitored medical machinery and equipment just conveniently sits in the hospital basement for our characters to play with each night.

Horrible. Time to dig out my Brainstorm Blu-ray I think and thank the lord no-one has sullied it by a vapid remake featuring young beautiful Somethings. Yet.