The Man should have stayed in Toronto…

toronoThe Man From Toronto, 2022, 112 mins, Netflix

Yes, The Man should have stayed in Toronto and saved us all the pain and bother. Mind, I don’t deserve any sympathy, I really should have known better. Some films have ‘avoid’ written all over them, but fair play, the marketing boffins had managed an intriguing teaser/trailer that Netflix put up when one foolishly clicked on this film’s title. It showed a neat little scene in which Kevin Hart, wrong dude at the wrong cabin, finds himself mistaken for the titular Man from Toronto, master interrogator and torture-artiste, and he’s escorted into a basement where he finds a poor guy is strung up waiting his attention and nasty thugs waiting to enjoy the show. Talk your way out of that, Kevin.

Well, they clearly couldn’t stretch that gag for a whole movie…

But they try.

Isn’t it curious how some Hollywood peeps, at least until Disney stepped in, treated streaming as The Great Evil a few years back? Well, money talks I guess, and now streamers, particularly Netflix at any rate, seems to have been useful as a happy dumping ground for any Hollywood effort that looks to be a misfire (see most any ‘Netflix Original’ or numerous other examples over on Amazon). Maybe things will change now that reduced subscribers have cautioned Netflix to be a wee bit more mindful over how it spends money. The Hollywood cash-cow era may be drawing to a close, so I hope everyone’s luxury renovations are squared up and yachts paid for and beach houses accounted for.

The Man From Toronto is a lamentable effort. An action-comedy that makes The Hitman’s Bodyguard look like a bona-fide classic, and HItman’s Wife’s Bodyguard look nowhere near as lazy as it seemed at the time. Maybe that’s all I really need to say on the matter- this is one of those films that one can easily imagine the pitch and the studio guys nodding sagely imagining another easy hit. But you can’t make movies by-the-numbers like that… well, you clearly can, but it doesn’t guarantee success like some think it might. But to the extent of sinking $75 million into something as cynically calculated as this? One can imagine “We got Hart!” ” We got Statham!” “We got that guy who directed Hitman’s Bodyguard!” “We can’t lose!” “Statham’s out- but Harrelson’s in!” “That cutey from Big Bang Theory says she got a few days free to shoot a few scenes!”  At least it wasn’t a huge success: whatever would have been next, The Man From Tipton? Yeah, I bet somebody had their eye on a franchise: The Man From Dallas, The Man From London, The Man From Paris…”ker-ching, baby they almost write themselves!”

Oh well. This is one to avoid, really, and another poor addition to the burgeoning pile of sub-standard Netflix content. I suppose this proves a timely addendum to my recent post about streaming; the way the game used to work, it was all about the amount of content rather than said content actually being any good. But maybe if any positive can come of something like The Man From Toronto, its that it may play some part in things changing. Netflix can’t remain the happy dumping ground for Hollywood misfires, it simply has to exercise some QC when it gets its wallet out- or subscribers may keep on leaving, and without the streaming option being quite so easy, maybe Hollywood itself will exercise a bit more care too. Well, one can dream…

Kate (2021)

kateKate is a beautiful and deadly assassin and although she has killed many people in the past, we can be fairly confident they were all bad guys who deserved it. We are not actually assured of this, but she seems to demonstrate some reticence regards killing a yakuza leader in Japan when the guy’s young daughter is seen alongside him. Kate’s pressured by her handler to pull the trigger anyway, and she does, but it doesn’t sit well with her seeing the bad guy’s blood- splattered daughter screaming at the sight of her father having had his brains blown out.

Maybe a more interesting film would have demonstrated Kate to be a cold-hearted killer without any conscience or remorse and over the course of the film changed her, shown her the error of her ways and then sought atonement for her sins. Not that this would have been particularly original, but this isn’t that film.

No, this is further demonstration of the considerable impact of John Wick on action flicks, because this is a John Wick-is-a-babe film with nods to Kill Bill -and maybe, at a stretch, Black Rain too, if anybody’s memory can stretch that far back (1989 being like Ancient History to many). There is also a very definite nod to noir classic DOA, although probably not the 1949 original (who remembers THAT far back?) but rather the 1988 remake featuring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, which was something of a misfire but one I quite enjoyed. Kate, you see, wants to quit after the events at the start of the film featuring the blood-splattered child, but nobody quits: instead she gets betrayed and poisoned with a radioactive substance leaving her with just 24 hours to live. This could have been the premise of a film with an interesting noir vibe, of a doomed assassin trying to exact revenge for her own murder, an examination of a murky world of crime, violence and murder and the futility of a wasted life. But nobody makes films like that these days. 

kate2What people want to see is an indestructible killing machine making the bad guys pay, and Kate does this in spades; its as deliriously violent and gory as the John Wick films and just as daft, existing in a parallel universe of bloody carnage that never seems to attract the cops (although considering the number of police I ever see, maybe these films are actually more realistic than one would initially think). And you’ll believe a fairly slight pretty woman can snap bones, smash faces, throw brutes around etc even when outnumbered ten or even twenty to one, although when the film nears its climax and the numbers get hysterically close to small armies she at least gets the help of an honourable Yakuza and his own troops to back her up. One’s suspension of disbelief does start to wane though considering some of the antics she gets up to whilst we are assured her insides are rotting away and her skin turning black with what’s presumably gangrene or something (thankfully her pretty face is the last part to go gangrenous, so hey, she’s always a sexy killing machine). 

There’s little wrong this film, as far as testosterone-fuelled action flicks go. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is very good as the titular Kate- she’s a good, charismatic actress with decent physicality for the action stuff. Marvel possibly missed a trick not seeing her potential for one of their own comicbook movies but there’s no reason why she couldn’t be announced for one: Spider-Woman, maybe, or a female Captain America? Her supporting cast is very good, but by now Woody Harrelson has been seen in too many similar roles and the eventual twist re: his character is seen a mile off: at this point his casting in stuff like this is surely a red flag that ruins any possible surprise (its frankly diabolically lazy casting).

The Japanese setting is visually arresting and as beautiful as one might expect, everything drenched in eye-popping neon that melts the screen in Dolby Vision. Its not a bad film, and its not a boring one, either; the stunts are always good value (only a silly CGI chase scene that looks like a Tron outtake messes things up with cartoon car-play). The problem is, we’ve seen all this before and eventually the familiarity of these John Wick knock-offs will inevitably breed contempt, if it hasn’t already. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde much more if only because that came out back when these things still seemed a bit fresh; there’s a distinct whiff of decay hanging around at this point.

The Highwaymen (2019)

highwayThere was something missing in this one. Its hard to put my finger on it- it was serviceable enough, if overlong, but somehow there was something just… off, somehow. Maybe it was a sense of an A-list cast just cruising- not exactly phoning it in, but maybe, veterans as Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are, they just sensed that something wasn’t working.

There is, for instance, a suggested subtext (and not even suggested really, but quite open at times) of the passing of  the torch, of the old meeting the new, of the old boys having one last mission, one last hunt, in the face of progress with technology and new systems replacing our heroes’ tried and tested instinct and grit. But it isn’t really examined or elaborated. Its not that I was expecting some kind of self-interrogation or self-doubt that, say, Unforgiven‘s William Munny had with his ‘one more job’… but, well, maybe I was. Costner is certainly capable of delving into Texas Ranger Frank Hamer’s soul, and the long bloody years of his past, but instead he cooly approaches this hunt for outlaws Bonnie and Clyde almost ignorant of the ghosts of the past. Maybe I was expecting some conflict, some sense of haunted isolation or being haunted by the past which simply wasn’t necessary here. I was just expecting some other movie. It happens.

Which was doubly frustrating, though, because this film was definitely not about Bonnie and Clyde – perhaps even refreshingly so, they were always on the periphery, their actions seen from a distance, generally even avoiding their faces. I don’t think they ever even spoke. The focus was purely on the two retired Texas Rangers brought back to hunt them down- Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), and yet the focus was wasted, we hardly really got ‘into’ them. I was expecting more intimate self-reflection, of the perspective of old age on youthful folly/waste/questionable deeds. We are told to question the public adoration that Bonnie and Clyde received from the poor (some kind of celebrities back then, as if subject to a mythic Robin Hood status) but we are not told to question the system or the lawmen that represented it. Costner is a Good Man. The outlaws are Bad. It feels very black and white where I was hoping for more shades of grey.

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.

Now You See Me (2013)

now12016.54: Now You See Me (Amazon VOD)

Now this is the kind of modern film that has me scurrying for the safety of 1960s/1970s films, back when film-makers had some common-sense and restraint. Now You See Me stretches the bounds of believability and then goes another 100% beyond that just for good measure. Modern film-makers don’t do subtle, do they? As the film had enough success to spawn a sequel I guess the mindless, spectacle-at-any-cost cinemagoers simply lapped it up. Maybe when they actually think about what they are watching they will realise they’ve been had. It’s a horrible con of a movie and one of my most depressing viewing experiences this year.

Its supposed to be about magic tricks and illusions but leaps into implausible extremes of logic and luck with so many WTF moments of CGI excess that I had to wonder if I’d stumbled onto another Marvel superhero franchise. It really is that daft with its incredibly funky/hip/beautiful/sexy (yep so Hollywood) ‘magicians/tricksters’ demonstrating impossible acts of illusion and impractical extremes of blind chance. It’s a shame really as the basic premise is interesting and could have made a decent thriller/mystery but as usual with modern films the film-makers cannot restrain from just going too far for spectacle and theatrics that simply cannot bear any intelligent scrutiny. None of the characters feel ‘real’, or the events they are situated in seem anything other than a noisy fantasy.

Do people watch a film like this and really believe it? Do they just blindly accept the patronising excuses/explanations pandered to them by such an inane script and offered up with blatant ignorance of any audience intelligence? At one point a giant safe under guard in a warehouse is apparently stolen, only to be explained as a supreme ploy of misdirection, as the safe is still in the warehouse but cunningly ‘hidden’ by an elaborate giant mirror somehow installed without the authorities knowing about it- indeed, the authorities chasing the supposed getaway truck without examining the crime scene enough to spot a gigantic 100-foot mirror hiding the actual safe still in its original position behind it? Or an elaborate chase scene culminating with a mock-crash/fatality on a bridge that is subject to such crazy chance and unlikely serendipity, and puts so many members of the public at risk of harm or death, that it’s just laughable when the ‘explanation’ is eventually given. It’s beyond preposterous; it’s insulting the viewer’s intelligence- particularly  when it includes a passing remark about a corpse being ‘borrowed’ from the morgue as if it’s just an ordinary occurrence, or that ‘magicians’ with no stunt-driving experience can rig an elaborate stunt that requires CGI augmentation for even a Hollywood film-crew to pull off.

At other points such daft excuses aren’t even attempted-  one of the magicians floats above an audience in a giant soap bubble, blatantly just a CGI effect, with no subsequent attempt to explain how the ‘illusion’ is really performed as it’s impossible fantasy- simply just a thoughtless ‘wow’ moment that gets carried by the films relentless don’t-pause-to-think-about-anything pace. So many films now race along breathlessly simply because they are so daft, with such supreme leaps of ridiculous logic and gaping plot-holes, that the film would fall apart if forced to bear any examination. I hate films like this, as they just refuse to give anything -including the audience- any sincerity or respect. Its spectacle and nothing more, pandering to a mindless viewer who just wants the ‘wow’ whatever the cost, just like any Transformers movie. To maintain the pace some of the editing is so extremely tight that it’s physically impossible for some actions to take place in the ‘real’ world, with characters ‘leaping’ from location to location almost instantly, lapses of logic carried away by the noisy soundtrack and bright flashy spectacle.

It is a horrible movie. Really horrible. And even more horrible is that so many people like it and we’ve apparently got a sequel- good lord, has the world gone mad? The lesson here is that people get the films they deserve and actors will do any movie for a paycheck.

No, I really didn’t like it!