Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

gunpowderI sit here wondering what in the world to say about this terrifically underwhelming tosh. It is clearly, absolutely, shamefully indebted to the John Wick films, something so frequently noted by myself of late (the films Kate, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and Nobody, the latter that I haven’t reviewed yet) that I wonder if it hasn’t suddenly reached some cinematic critical mass. Everybody seems to be referencing John Wick, and in just the same way as in the late seventies/early eighties all those sci-fi efforts ‘inspired by’ Star Wars were all pretty woeful, all these action movies are wholly inferior to John Wick (well, except maybe Nobody, which I really enjoyed, but more on that hopefully later when I get chance to post a review).

Gunpowder Milkshake‘s ingenious (well, maybe not) spin on the John Wick formula brings the novel twist of the protagonists all being women, and all the bad guys/bastards being men. Its about as nuanced and sophisticated as that, and I know of quite a few YouTubers who will get their boxer shorts in a right royal knot at the woke explosion that is this film. It’ll come, I’m sure. I try to stay out of all that gender politics although it winds me up plenty at times, but subtle on such issues this film isn’t (“There’s a group of men called The Firm. They’ve been running things for a long, long time… They think they’re untouchable. They think they can get away with anything”/”But they won’t right?”/”No. They won’t. Not anymore!”). Yeah these sisters are doing it for themselves.

I could, for instance, just reel off all manner of juicy quotes from the films remarkably complex script: “She got us good, Doc. I don’t think I’ll walk again”/”Well, there must be an epidemic, because I’ve got a guy in the next room who’s got similar symptoms”/”What do you mean?”/”I mean, a girl f**ked him up, too.” I’m sure some people lap this stuff up as being absolutely revelatory and hip and intoxicating. The men are all evil or stupid or both, and most are generally incompetent. That’s about the extent of Gunpowder Milkshake‘s philosophy, which would be fine if it was tongue in cheek and maybe self-knowing, but this thing is relentless in its world-building, securing a mythology to mirror the world-building of the John Wick films, only from a wholly feminist bent. Which, as I say, is fine, particularly if it was a bit arch and self-deprecating but seeing slightly-built women kicking four worlds of shit out of armies of man mountain bad-guys twice their size… it was daft in Kate, its quite nauseating in this. There’s nothing particularly feminine about these women- its curious that they are behaving entirely like men themselves, as if there’s an in-joke within these films lost upon the cast and crew, earnest as they are. I mean, this film has a hell of a cast: Lena Headley, Carla Cugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Karen Gillian and Paul Giamatti. All utterly wasted in overly-stylish, pretentious nonsense.

So anyway, before I leave myself open to a torrent of abuse by fervent fans of this odd film (I’m sure there are some out in the wild), I’ll leave it there. Its getting late, I’m tired, and really, I was wasting my time watching this tripe, wasting my time writing about it just makes me twice the fool.

Avengement

avengemeAnybody who fondly remembers the VHS rental days of Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies will likely find much to enjoy in this. Avengement is a very low-rent action movie and that’s pretty much all it is- indeed there’s so much continuous violent action in this, more than a few times I thought it was a Brit John Wick.  The whole film is deliberately structured (mostly via flashbacks etc) so that its scenes continually set up yet another bloody fight every ten minutes or so – its quite relentless, just like the John Wick series.

Its certainly graphic. Stabbings, exploding heads, exploding kneecaps, severed limbs, shattered teeth and broken bones litter the film in a bloody ruin of violence that delights in making viewers wince and groan during all the mayhem. This film does not pull its punches (sic).

The story, such as it is , is basically a revenge yarn. After a robbery went wrong several years ago, ex-Boxer Cain Burgess (Scott Adkins) has been in prison, targeted by every criminal inside and has had to fight by every means possible to survive. By the time he  is released on furlough from the prison to say goodbye to his mother, who is terminally ill in hospital, he is so scarred by many cuts and burns, with a grin showing metal teeth, that he looks every bit of a hulking monster. Finding his mother has died before he got there, he escapes from his police guard escort and makes a break for freedom and vengeance.  Now back out on the streets and on the run, Cain seeks out those that betrayed him and put a price on his head, and the bent police that abetted them, offering a decidedly bloody and violent revenge.

In a funny way, this shockingly violent and one-dimensional film actually resembles the kind of pulp story Robert E Howard would sell to the popular boxing pulps of his day- stories about wronged characters using their base instincts and fighting prowess to right injustices.

If the idea of a very basic plot and excessive swearing and lots of bloody violence in the style of those VHS action flicks of the 1980s appeals to you, then yes, you’ll find much to enjoy in Avengement. Even the  music score harks back to the 1980s (in particular an unlikely Ennio Morricone score). On the other hand, if you’re looking for something nuanced with subtle characterisation you’d really best look elsewhere- but as this film is ‘free’ on Netflix, you’d possibly be a fool not to at least give it a try. Certainly at just 90 minutes long, it doesn’t outstay its welcome if you like this kind of thing.

 

A Perfect Allison Williams Double-bill

perfect2Allison who? I hear you ask. Well, that’s a very good question really. I was watching The Perfection last night, and you know how it is, you’re watching a film or tv show and you see a (usually pretty) face and you think, I’ve seen that bloke/woman (delete as appropriate) before, but where? I watch a lot of films, not as many as some, sure, but a lot, and this kind of thing happens all the time. Its what mobile phones and the internet are for, right, to avoid this kind of thing becoming a mental meltdown spoiling what you are watching, but I prefer it to be a bit of a game- pause the damn thing (it’s what pause buttons are for, right?) and just debating with your other half “what the hell have we seen her in? Its something recent, I’m sure, but…”

Too many movies/tv shows. Its all getting a blur at the best of times.

So anyway, this occurred watching The Perfection, a strange horror/thriller flick on Netflix- whenever Allison Williams was onscreen, and it was, like, all the time because she was the star of the damn thing and it was really bugging us. So twenty minutes in we hit the pause button and wracked our brains and eventually, as it does, it came to us- she was in Get Out, another horror/thriller film that we saw a few weeks ago but which I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing here.

So, probably an ideal opportunity to review both films, or at least offer a few thoughts about each whilst considering the artistic qualities of she who is named Allison Williams.

Now, Allison, let’s get this right off the bat- she’s pretty, and she looks an awful lot like Daisy Ridley (Rey from the latest Star Wars trilogy) and Keira Knightley (The Pirates of the Carribean and a lot of other more forgettable stuff) so I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking that she fits a certain casting profile of what’s trendy in films now regards female leads. Now, the spin here is that while I’d likely be correct in thinking that, I’d also have to admit, she’s pretty good, possibly even a better actress, although she comes from a television show background (not something that carries the stigma it used to in the 1970s, certainly) and hasn’t had the break into blockbuster territory that Misses Ridley and Knightley have enjoyed just yet. At any rate, she was pretty damn good in Get Out, and even better in The Perfection– maybe she benefited from limited roles but she manages screen presence and charm and carries herself pretty well. I suspect we may see more of her in future and in later years people won’t be stumbling upon this post wondering “Allison who…?”.

011641211.jpgSo anyway, let’s start with the film clearest in my memory because I saw it last night: The Perfection. This is a something of a revenge/horror thriller that delivers on the shocks and gore but also on the modern tendency of scripts to just break down under scrutiny. I have been reminded before that all film is like that- it’s the plot holes that are filled by the scripts that enable the drama and twists etc and that most films fall apart when really given consideration. So we can forgive all that to some degree. I mean, it’s a little like thinking back on all the carnage in the John Wick films and wondering where all the cops are, particularly in New York considering Wick leaves a wake of bodies akin to a terrorist incident and the frenzy of police and ambulance sirens would surely be up on live News casts etc while it’s still going down. So filmgoers should always suspend disbelief with the proverbial pinch of salt and consider it all part of the fun.

In the case of The Perfection, its perhaps to consider it a modern fable, a kind of adult morality tale, clearly something rather diverged from any reality any of us are familiar with. Its a b-movie posing as something more sophisticated, which it really isn’t, and in this way it reminds me of several other films, like Velvet Buzzsaw, for example, or the recent Suspiria. Child prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a budding master cellist who had to leave a prestigious musical academy when her mother fell ill, and now years later following her mothers death she reconnects with her old tutors and the academy and the star pupil that replaced her and has lived the fame and success that Charlotte was denied. There’s a similar jealousy/animosity/sexual tension that featured in the superior Black Swan, as Charlotte and new star Lizzie (Logan Browning) reconnect. They start an affair as Lizzie takes a well-earned break from performances but something feels a little ‘off’ and its soon revealed that Charlotte really has a few scores she means to settle before the film is over.

To reveal much more would certainly break into spoiler territory, and as I endeavour not to do that when posting about new or fairly recent releases, I won’t go much further here, except to say that it’s got a few left-turns and surprises and is pretty good, except that it really can’t resist going just a few steps too far. Its not a unique criticism, I mean its true of so many contemporary films and tv shows- the drive to shock and surprise and entertain in modern material just can’t help but stretch credibility. The Perfection is, ironically given its title perhaps (whoops, cheap shot right there) is, alas, far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good fun while it lasts. Best to approach it for what it is, a b-movie at heart, and accept it on those terms.

geto1It is also, in a way, reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone tv series, something I was also thinking of when I watched Get Out a few weeks back,  Both films can be considered as simple Twilight Zone-like pitches. In Get Out‘s case, its a film about Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black guy whose relationship with white girl Rose (yep, Allison Williams) comes under some nervous scrutiny when he meets her family one weekend at their rural family home. “Don’t go to a white girl’s parents’ house!” he is warned by Rod, his conspiracy theorist best friend, whose wild fancies are initially played for laughs but it transpires he’s right to be afraid for Chris. Its all a little like The Stepford Wives or Twin Peaks, regards a dark underbelly hidden beneath what on first glance is a pleasant, law-abiding if overly conservative white American community out in the sticks. I was reminded of some of H P Lovecraft’s stories, in which cultists would preserve their essences in ‘Saltes’ through which they might achieve some immortality or life beyond death by occupying the bodies of later descendants – Get Out chooses to follow a more scientific route to explain what’s really going on, but it’s essentially the same.  Its well acted and staged and is a pretty good thriller, and like the best Lovecraft fiction, it had me grimly pondering the really nasty undercurrent of what was really going on – on reflection it’s really horrible how people were being replaced by others in their bodies and for how long it had been happening (I prefer Lovecraft’s more fanciful somewhat mystical methodology than the brain-swapping silliness the film hints at, and I think the film would have functioned as  a great HPL film had it gone that way).

So anyway, there’s two films featuring Allison Williams. I’m sure there will be plenty more, and maybe with the next one I’ll recognise her straight away and won’t be distracted by wondering where I’ve seen that face before…?

John Wick Ch.3: Parabellum (2019)

wick3This third entry in the John Wick franchise knows what it is doing from the start- pleasing John Wick fans and lovers of action movies. In that sense, the film is some kind of relentless machine, delivering elaborate fights, bloody headshots and pretty breathtaking stunts in spades, right from the opening. When I exited the cinema I wondered how long it’s going to be until somebody does a bodycount and reveals just how many dead bodies Wick and his freinds leave in their wake (I’m guessing something like two hundred, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were actually higher).

There is something almost cathartic in that cartoon violence, a ballet of death that is almost glorious- this series of films remains an action-movie fan’s wet dream, stripping down all plot and characterisation to something like a videogame level. I remember there was a game several years ago, I forget the name, but it put the player in several first-person levels/scenarios of killing and rewarded the player by scoring for headshots/stringing deaths together etc – this is that videogame as a movie.  The problem is, it gets a little wearing at times, the endless action, the relentless death and destruction lacking any depth or perspective that, say, a proper script with proper characters would have. I may be missing something, but towards the end of the film a group of bad guys in a busy concourse of the train station are suddenly wiped out through some surprise intervention (that makes little sense really when I think about it, except that the big bad guy doesn’t want the other bad guys spoiling his fun- that’s about as complex as this stuff gets) and none of the public commuters react – I even looked for the bodies in the background as the camera started to move away and I couldn’t see any. Did I blink and miss the corpses getting ‘cleaned up’? Shouldn’t hundreds of panicked commuters have been fleeing the scene?

Should I really be enjoying this silly movie so much?

Its hard to believe that it was back in 2014 that the first John Wick came out of nowhere like a breath of fresh air. Stripping the usual action movie tropes to the barest minimum, its retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a mystery, barely a character outline- described as ‘Baba Yaga’ , a shadowy legend whispered about by fearing criminals, he was suddenly unleashed like a bloody force of nature when the grieving mans car was stolen and his dog killed. It was simple, and the bad guys deserved everything they got (never mess with a mans car or his dog). As action films go, the brevity of the plot and characterisation makes the film pretty much perfect.

John Wick 2 delved deeper into the mysterious mythology only hinted at in the original, and Parabellum (its funny how sophisticated/complex a title it is for a film so simple) opens things much further, actually breaking out of the city and into the outside world, as far as the deserts of Africa (in a sequence which is, ironically, the weakest of the movie, which may be telling).  Each John Wick film has added more characters in the supporting cast, more back-story, ever more elaborate myth-building. At this point with the third film, we’re pretty much at the level of the first Matrix film, the defined world having its own weird logic – assassins everywhere, a payment system of unique gold coins/tokens, administrative clerks, adjudicators, sacred codes of conduct, John Wick even practically holding status of ‘the One,’ the status of unkillable, with all the other assassins trying to prove themselves by doing the impossible. Oh, and if the moral of the first film was ‘never mess with a man and his dog’, this one offers the adage ‘never mess with a woman and her dogs’ – Halle Berry and her deadly dogs being one of the highpoints of the film (although I maintain that this section of the film away from the city is its weakest section) and it’s pretty damn certain she’ll be joining Wick in Chapter Four’s carnage.

At this point it’s pretty clear that there is a danger these films will collapse in on themselves by adding too many layers to its mythology, becoming too complex to support the inherent daftness and joy of its fairly chaotic cartoon violence. Fans always want more, and will gleefully greet John Wick 4 or even John Wick 5 (probably as inevitable as Thanos, at this point). I have to wonder though when the inevitable happens and all that violence, and Wick’s own increasingly hilarious invincibility,  just becomes wearisome. I’d much prefer the Wick films to go out on a high and not become too diluted by too many sequels or its stunts etc just get too insane in the pursuit of being better than before.

Parabellum is still a pretty damn cool action movie and cements the reputation of the series as whole, although it’s clear that there are worrying indications of the point of diminishing returns rearing its head before long. Roll on Chapter Four anyway.

Red Sparrow (2018)

redsp1Black Swan meets Tinker. Tailor… or Spies Like Us maybe. An old-fashioned cold-war spy thriller, surprisingly leaning toward the cerebral rather than the OTT fighting or stunts of films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick etc would seem right up my street, but something was wrong here. Maybe it was the strangely farcical plot, which is why I mentioned Spies Like Us. A renowned ballet star, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), living in a concrete tenement block frozen in snow, is looking after her ill mother in-between ballet performances until during a ballet her leg is hideously broken when her dance partner misjudges a jump. Her career ended and her home and mother’s medical care (both provided by the Ballet company) under threat, she is approached by her uncle, Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who just happens to be a leading Russian intelligence operative, seeking her help with a case, after which he forces her to be recruited into the Sparrow Academy, where beautiful young Russians are trained in the arts of sexual manipulation and…

Okay, I’ll spare you and stop right there. It really is as silly and coincidental and plot-holed as it likely seems from that attempt at a summary. I haven’t even mentioned a good-hearted CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and his Russian Mole (identity secret – a surprise twist later that seems one too many) who is being hunted down by the Russians following a messed-up rendezvous.

It seems well-intentioned and is indeed a return to old-fashioned spy capers but its just hamstrung by a crazy plot and awkward presentation. It just looks and feels wrong and none of the characters really convince- Lawrence’s frustrated Ballerina is just a mystery,  we never know what makes her ‘tick’, her dancing is quickly forgotten and in no time at all she becomes a hardened spy who can second-guess and manipulate and fight her way out of trouble when she needs to. There is a sexual undertone between she and her uncle that suggests a Black Swan-like darkness but its not developed, just hangs there, a plot-thread someone forgot or got embarrassed by or didn’t have the courage to develop.

So a frustrating (you should see the cast list- every few minutes it seems some other major actor appears, frankly the script is beneath all of them) film that I can’t really recommend. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly tries, is found wanting and alarmingly vacuous. Some films are just duds, no matter how fine the cast or how proficient the crew (director Frances Lawrence of three of the Hunger Games movies). If the intention was to launch a new spy franchise for Jennifer Lawrence, then hopefully its failed and this will be consigned to the box for unwise cynical green-lights. Its long, its baffling, its ridiculous. Quite bizarre, and I still haven’t seen Lawrence’s mother! yet (what is happening regards her choice of movies post-Hunger Games?)- I’m wary about that one.

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.

John Wick (2014)

jwickJohn Wick. Hell of an action movie. Don’t know what the body-count in this one is but it’s got to be up there. If you want a high-octane action flick with some astonishingly well-choreographed stunts/fight sequences, this one fits the bell admirably.Its this years Taken (although a better film than Taken, to be sure), John Wick also reminds me a great deal of Payback, Brian Helgeland’s noir thriller that starred Mel Gibson as a bitter criminal seeking revenge on his back-stabbing partners in crime (indeed it shares a similar plot and modern-noir swagger- if you liked Payback you’ll likely love John Wick).

Sure, one could take issues with some of the twists of the plot, and how realistic it is for one guy to take on a Russian crime-bosses army of thugs in a city seemingly bereft of a police force, but that’s not the point with films like this. Its an action romp with a plot that simply serves to pile on the mayhem. And what mayhem it is, a welcome antidote to the toy-town violence of something like The Expendables 3, here its an adult violence, brutal and graphic and with consequences, more like that of The Raid films (indeed it could be said that with The Raid films, Dredd, Mad Max:Fury Road and John Wick the modern action film is enjoying something of a resurgence of late). Thankfully like those films, the film is brisk and doesn’t over-complicate things. Keeping it simple seems to be the modern action film, and it doesn’t hurt to hark back to the golden age of the 1970s in style and sensibility.

Keanu Reeves does well as the titular character. In truth the part suits him well; he doesn’t have to emote very much but he does have a sympathetic streak and shows some vulnerability to his character that helps the audience empathise with what might otherwise have been a heartless one-dimensional cold-bloodied killer. Reeves handles the physicality of the role -its stunts etc- very well indeed, as might be expected from his Matrix films. It took me most of the film to finally recognise Michael Nyqvist from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films- you know how it is when you recognise the face but can’t quite place it (although he has aged some to be fair)- well, Nyqvist bugged me for most of the film. He’s very, very good here as the mafia boss whose son has wronged his ex-hitman John Wick, so good he nearly steals the show. Alfie Allen is great as the bad-to-the-bone son Iosef whose over-confidence threatens to bring down his fathers empire, and there are also lovely turns by Willem Dafoe and Lance Reddick (a favourite from the good old Fringe tv-series days)- it’s a great cast.

Beyond all the violence and the blood, there is a lovely mythology to this film, a shared history between the characters, almost as if we are watching film two of a trilogy- sly references and reminiscences between them slipped into the dialogue. Nothing is over-explained, just threads left hanging there- background characters like a cop that knows Wick and turns a blind eye to some bodies,or the leader of a clean-up squad always keen on more business, or Ian McShane’s excellent cameo as the proprietor of a hotel whose guests, assassins all, are strictly under pains to behave (or else). There is a lovely sense of logic to it and humour. I’d prefer the film to be left as it is, but I’m sadly confident that its success will gestate inferior sequels that will dilute it (seems to be how the film industry works these days); I’d prefer to have it left as it is and for the threads to just stay open to the imagination. Why spoil it with more movies?

It is what it is. Leave your brain at the door and enjoy one of the better action films of the last few years. Some people will be horrified by John Wick and question its violence, its politics and gender-roles but that’s not the point of films like this (at least until it is ripped apart by film theorists in twenty years time). Its just a cool action movie. Expect no more and you’ll be pleasantly entertained.