Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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April 28, 2019

Keanu Reeves at the Lighthouse

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The Lighthouse cinema is gearing up for something called Keanurama, a whole season of films starring the inimitable Keanu Reeves. Talking Movies‘ reaction to this news could only be captured by one word – whoa.

There is a veritable feast of Keanu Reeves on offer here, from his team-ups with Winona Ryder in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Scanner Darkly and Destination Wedding to his 1990s-defining action movies Point Break and Speed, from his indie classics River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho to his mainstream hits Parenthood and Devil’s Advocate, from his original breakthrough Bill & Ted movies to his recent John Wick comeback trilogy.

John Wick & John Wick: Chapter 2 DOUBLE BILL

May 10th

Keanu had three movies (Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi) that didn’t make Irish cinemas but made one hell of a comeback as the principled hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, the larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick as he rampaged after the mobsters who killed his puppy. The flabby sequel expanded the Man from UNCLE-like Continental universe too much, but featured some memorable fights; especially the Wellesian throwdown with Ruby Rose.

Destination Wedding

May 10th

Fellows 1990s icon and latterly cinematic exile Winona Ryder made her great comeback in Stranger Things in 2016 so it was only fitting that she would reunite for a third time with Keanu in this 2018 rom-com by Mad About You writer /director Victor Levin about two misanthropes travelling to a hopelessly pretentious destination wedding and being lumbered with each other there. In a curious twist it seems that this film, just like 2017’s similarly themed rom-com Table 19 about the people you invite to weddings and seat far away to avoid them, hides some very formalist experimentation behind innocuous trappings.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

May 10th

Keanu and Winona’s first film together saw them gamely battle with cut-glass English accents as married couple Jonathan and Mina Harker for Francis Ford Coppola’s curate’s egg of a horror movie, that aspires to great fidelity to its source text even as screenwriter James V Hart makes sweeping inventions about reincarnated immortal beloveds so that Gary Oldman’s rejuvenating Count can lust over Winona. Roman Coppola rummages thru the Old Hollywood playbook for practical magic, and Sadie Frost and Monica Bellucci go all out for eroticism, but despite an impressive ensemble (including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) this never catches fire.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

May 15th

Legendary hit-man and lover of dogs John Wick is excommunicado, having conducted business on Continental property. Now Ian McShane has given Keanu one hour’s grace in which he must fight his way out of New York with a $14 million contract on his life and every assassin in the Five Boroughs eager to collect. The production photo of a besuited Keanu riding a horse thru NYC has already taken on a life of its own, and we’re promised an equally tantalising samurai sword fight on motorbikes, as well as a detour to Africa with ally Halle Berry.

Speed 35mm

May 25th

Die Hard cinematographer Jan De Bont made an auspicious directorial debut with this high-concept action blockbuster about a mad bomber targeting an LA bus that has to stay above 50mph in a city known for its congestion. The leads Keanu and Sandra Bullock strike sparks, Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton are terrific in support, and Dennis Hopper chews the scenery as the crazed bomber – sorry, he’s not crazy, “poor people are crazy, Jack, I’m eccentric” – delivering witticisms from the pen of Joss Whedon. Mark Mancina’s score is a triumph of urgency and elation as Keanu attempts to save the day.

A Scanner Darkly 35mm

June 1st

Richard Linklater adapted Philip K Dick’s hallucinogenic novel using his favoured animation technique, rotoscoping, to create a uniquely hellish new world in which an undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result. Keanu is said cop, and he’s romancing Winona Ryder in their second film together. But she, and indeed everyone else, may not be what they seem as the drugs start to take hold. A pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr is very, very funny in his role as a rambling, voluble, paranoid junkie.

Parenthood

June 5th

Director Ron Howard bade farewell to the 1980s with this ensemble comedy led by Steve Martin dealing with his ever-expanding Midwestern American family. The impressive cast includes Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rick Moranis. Keanu stretches his comedic muscles as Tod, the not too bright but thoroughly amiable boyfriend to Martin’s fiery oldest daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton), a small but memorable turn. It’s tempting to draw a direct line from Keanu’s performance here to that of Reid Ewing as Dylan, the nice but dim boyfriend to the eldest Dunphy daughter in this current decade’s defining sitcom Modern Family.

River’s Edge

June 7th

Keanu and Dennis Hopper co-star again in a far more sombre movie than Speed. A group of high school friends including Keanu, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover, and Roxana Zal must come to terms with the fact that one of their gang, Daniel Roebuck, has unapologetically killed his girlfriend. This look at the private lives of teenagers; their misdemeanours, code of honour, betrayals; consciously courted controversy by basing the grim tale on a real-life occurrence in California. This is one of Keanu’s earliest roles, agonised and soulful, in a haunting and pitch-black 80s teen drama that almost seems to have invited Heathers.

The Devil’s Advocate

June 14th

Keanu’s up and coming Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by legal shark John Milton (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, Keanu’s wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in her first Hollywood iteration) begins to have frightening hallucinations warping her sense of reality. Kevin quickly learns that his mentor’s life isn’t about simply winning court cases without scruples. Pacino and Connie Nielsen have something far darker in mind. Pacino literally being the Devil in this gaudy thriller featuring creatures by the legendary Rick Baker; he of the lycanthropic transformations in An American Werewolf in London.

My Own Private Idaho

June 18th

Writer/director Gus Van Sant followed up his hit Drugstore Cowboy with a far looser movie featuring one of Keanu’s most nuanced performances and an affecting turn by River Phoenix. This key work of the New Queer Cinema follows two street hustlers, Phoenix’s Mike and Keanu’s Scott, as they embark on a road-trip from Portland, Oregon to Mike’s hometown in Idaho, and then eventually to Rome in search of Mike’s mother.  All the while Scott Favor has no intention of leading this street life forever. Van Sant incorporates Henry IV better than you’d believe possible with Keanu as bisexual Hal.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

June 21st

Bill S Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu) are in danger of failing their history final most heinously. This will result in Ted’s disciplinarian cop father sending him to military school. And that would be the end of Wyld Stallyns, the band the pair are trying to make into an MTV sensation despite a total lack of musical ability. It turns out, as Rufus (George Carlin), a dude from the future tells them, it would be the end of the world too. And so comedic time-travelling and borrowing historical figures ensues to ace the history final!

 

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

June 22nd

Keanu’s major sequel problem (John Wick: Chapter 2, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and being blacklisted by 20th Century Fox for passing on Speed 2) began with this bogus journey. William Sadler is sublime as the Grim Reaper, straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and crummy at Battleship. There is some wonderful set design, but, despite multiple robot versions of our heroes and more time-travelling and time-travel fuzzy logic than you can shake a stick at, this just isn’t as much goofy good-natured fun as its underdog predecessor. Third time’s the charm next year dude?

So first you watch one film with us, and then you watch another film with us, right after?

Bill & Ted DOUBLE BILL

June 23rd

WHOA! Two heads are better than one dude!

“Will you be at this party?” “Definitely.”

Point Break 4th July Party

July 6th

“Vaya Con Dios…”

Point Break

July 11th

Keanu leads this hybrid undercover cop in too deep/surfing/action heist/bromance Point Break with alternately lyrical and muscular direction from Kathryn Bigelow and a script polish by James Cameron. A string of bank robberies in Southern California where the villains disguise themselves as former US presidents sees hot-shot FBI agent and former college football star Johnny Utah (Keanu) assigned the dead-end case and Gary Busey’s gruff veteran. Keanu and Busey realise their crazy theory is correct – these bank-robbers are surfers! Keanu goes undercover, and romances Lori Petty’s surfer while growing closer to the gang’s leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Will he arrest him?

And coming directly after all that is the 20th anniversary re-release of … The Matrix.

November 21, 2018

Notes on Overlord

Julius Avery’s WWII horror follow-up to Son of a Gun was the catch-up film of the week on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle last Sunday.

Watching Overlord is a time-travelling experience, and not because this WWII guys on a mission movie mash-up with a gory zombie horror begins with Ike’s reading of his celebrated D-Day missive to the troops about to undertake the deliverance of Europe from the Nazis with the logistical marvel of Operation Overlord. This feels like a film from the mid-Zeroes. Hostel is in its DNA, as is the second episode of Band of Brothers, and, via Doom, the aesthetics of a shoot ’em up video game. In a film about hideous Nazi ‘medical’ experiments on civilians, that is seemingly oblivious of the existence of Dr Josef Mengele, proceedings end with a zombie boss fight – because that’s the logic at work. Wyatt Russell is the gruff ‘the mission is all that matters’ paratrooper who takes command of the decimated forces including Jovan Adepo, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker. Their mission: destroy a radio tower. Their distractions: a pretty French girl (Mathilde Ollivier), an SS Captain (Pilou Asbaek), and a dark secret lurking inside the base.

If it wasn’t bad enough to be oblivious of Mengele and have a zombie boss fight in a WWII movie about Nazi experimentations, there is also, regrettably, the trope that infuriates like few others in modern Hollywood – of one life being prioritised to the point of insanity. cf Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix Reloaded, The Cabin in the Woods. Is it worth leaving Europe under Nazi occupation and letting the Holocaust continue on for the sake of saving one random French kid that the soldiers have just met? That is the choice that Jovan Adepo’s character forces on the others. Wyatt Russell’s disbelieving explosive expert tries to remind his men that they are supposed to blow up the radio tower so that D-Day can succeed, does that not strike them as slightly more important than Adepo trying to impress a girl by saving her brother? Guess what they decide…

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Babylon A.D.

Another trawl thru the depths of the pre-Talking Movies archives recovers what Vin Diesel was reduced to before Justin Lin.

The Dark Knight was so sublime that it caused every other studio to delay their releases, hence the recent avalanche of nonsense which reaches its apotheosis of ridiculousness with Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice and gruff presence are all that keep this inane attempt at a futuristic thriller limping along. He plays Toorop, a hard-bitten American mercenary with a liking for good food, exiled in Russia. He is kidnapped by Gerard Depardieu (wearing outrageous prosthetics) and entrusted with delivering a naïve young girl Aurora (Melanie Thierry) to New York City. The mysterious girl is accompanied from her convent by the enigmatic Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Other clichés occur as they struggle against harsh landscapes only to find that the truly dark places are within…the human heart…

Matthieu Kassovitz, the maker of La Haine, co-writes and directs this disastrous attempt at a post-apocalyptic action epic with great meaning. The problem is he never bothers explaining how this future came about. It looks like Dark Angel’s Seattle but James Cameron explained that vision of 2019 as a result of a truly global terror attack. Kassovitz, however, seems to think explanations are unworthy of him. Sister Rebeka astounds Toorop by knowing kung fu, but we have been told nothing of her Neolite religious order by that point so the revelation falls flat, and we still don’t know enough about them to make any sense later on of the Machiavellian plotting of their founder, Charlotte Rampling. Kassovitz has flailed around badly since La Haine with The Crimson Rivers, (which explored the fine line between un homage to Se7en and un rip-off) and Halle Berry’s truly awful Gothika, so this mess is really no surprise.

Things start well with RZA sound-tracking realistic action in a grimy Russia but after that fake-looking CGI and plot-destroying bending of the laws of physics start to abound. Staggeringly a French director seems not to know how to showcase the Gallic invention of parkour, with an action sequence fizzling out as it fails to even palely imitate Casino Royale’s thrilling free-running extravaganza. The utter waste of talent in this film is exemplified by noted British character actor Mark Strong who is out-shone by his bad peroxide hair-do as the smuggler Finn. Melanie Thierry sleepwalks her way through proceedings, but perhaps she’s just trying to understand her apparent, and only occasional, Neo powers. Indeed, you will persistently shout ‘What?!’ at the logical lapses, especially the ending.

Vin Diesel can act when forced (Boiler Room) and deliver great big dumb blockbusters (xXx). This falls into some hellish in-between zone and its disaster status can be confirmed by the presence of Wilson Lambert as a mad scientist. Lambert has starred in Catwoman, Sahara, and both Matrix sequels and is the cinematic equivalent of a dead canary in a mining shaft. Avoid.

1/5

June 15, 2018

By the time the screams for help were heard, they were no longer funny

After belatedly catching up with Jurassic World 2, which features the nastiest moment in all 5 movies, I felt compelled to finally flesh out some thoughts I’d been pushing around.

It’s rapidly approaching 15 years since the release of Kill Bill: Volume 1. I’ve been listening to Tomoyasu Hotei’s barnstorming instrumental ‘Battle without Honour or Humanity’, which successfully took on a life of its own unconnected to the movie; soundtracking everything on television sports for a while. I’m happy it did because I felt queasy in the Savoy all those years ago watching the ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’, and revisiting that sequence hasn’t made me like it any more now. 2003 in retrospect seems to have been huge anticipation repeatedly followed by huge disappointment – The Matrix Reloaded, Kill Bill: Volume 1, The Matrix Revolutions. Reloaded and Volume 1 both had epic fight scenes straining a muscle striving to be iconic. Reloaded’s Neo v Smiths didn’t work because of the overuse of farcically obvious CGI, and Volume 1’s Crazy 88 massacre didn’t work because of its incredibly excessive gore which wasn’t funny because of the screams of agony.

Like Reloaded there is a long build-up to the actual fight, with dialogue that wants to be quoted forevermore. Indeed the showy camerawork when the 88 arrive by motorcycle to surround the Bride is great. Unfortunately, like Reloaded, then the fight ensues. Shifting into black and white to placate the MPAA, and hide an embarrassing shortage of fake blood colouring, the choreography of the actual blade strokes is generally pretty obscured. What Tarantino wants you to focus on is the great fountains of blood every time the Bride lops off a limb. Tarantino clearly thinks these blood sprays are hilarious. Also he clearly thinks that people screaming in agony because they’ve just lost a limb and will be crippled for the rest of their life is hilarious. I don’t. And the moment where Sophie; who, mind, didn’t do anything to the Bride, she’s just friends with someone who did; has her arm cut off repelled me in the cinema and continues to repel me. It’s the sadism. She’s made to stand with her arm out for a long time, just waiting for the Bride to cut it off. And Tarantino lingers for a long time on her agony, because he finds it hilarious. Could it be funny like he thinks?

Edwyn Collins and Tarantino when given stick both brandished the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to justify the intrinsic comedy of amputation. But if you cite that for Kill Bill Volume 1 you are deliberately overlooking the most salient point. The amputation is comic only because of the Black Knight’s complete indifference to it. There is no gushing fountain of blood, there is no rolling around on the ground grimacing and screaming in agony for a long time. The Black Knight barely seems aware he’s lost a limb, or four. It’s the nonchalance, the insouciance that makes it funny. The comedy is the total disjunct between reality and perception. This is not Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Volume 1 is meant to be funny because of the total disjunct between the reality of how much blood comes out when a limb is amputated and Tarantino’s perception of that. Hence the Studio 60 gag about how a great fountain of blood from the Thanksgiving turkey sells the Tarantino reference and is funny, but a realistic trickle of blood does not make the reference and is instead incredibly disturbing. I hold that the comedy Tarantino thought he was making was lost because of the lack of disjunct between the reality of the characters losing a limb and their perception of that traumatic life-altering reality.

And then you have JJ Abrams, who must have thought this was a good idea until some sensible person talked him out of it before this horrific little scene had made it all the way thru post-production. No doubt Abrams thought it was fan service for Chewbecca to rip Unkar Plutt’s arm out of its socket and throw it across a room because he dissed him. Not realising apparently that there’s a large difference between the comedy value of a scare story used on a droid, “Let the Wookie win!”, and the grisly horror of it being done for real against a not terrifically villainous alien who feels pain, screams in pain, and won’t be able to get that arm put back on like a droid would. Dear God Abrams… But even that qualifier, not terrifically villainous, troubles; and not just because of this sketch

 

Tarantino doubled down on his punishment of Sophie for someone else’s crime. In a horrific addendum to the Japanese version, that mercifully didn’t make it to the Irish version and which I consequently only came across a few weeks ago for the first time, the Bride cuts off Sophie’s other arm.

Jurassic World took a lot of flak, and deservedly so, for Katie McGrath’s horrific death sequence. Prolonged, agonising, and random; because her character hadn’t done anything to deserve this punishment. And yet in Jurassic World 2 we have another prolonged and agonising death, but this time the writers have gone out of their way to justify it by giving the victim Trump sentiments.

September 20, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Director Matthew Vaughn helms a hasty sequel to his Mark Millar absurdist spy fantasy which sadly displays its hasty production.

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Our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is waiting for a Kingsman cab when he is attacked by old rival Charlie (Edward Holcroft); unexpectedly, because he was presumed dead, and didn’t have a bionic arm. Said ‘arm’ leads to Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) being the last Kingsmen standing, and having to seek help from their American cousins, the Statesmen. They get a gruff reception from Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), but a warmer welcome from Merlin’s opposite number Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) who has developed a maguffin for dealing with headshots. Et voila – despite Colin Firth being shot in the head last time out – Harry lives! But will Harry recover his memories and his co-ordination in time to save the world from the depredations of drug baron Poppy (Julianne Moore) or does his distrust of Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) bespeak incurable paranoia?

This sequel was written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, but the tone is off; right from the twisted but not funny use of Chekhov’s meat-mincer in Poppy’s introduction. The fact that Eggsy and Merlin face the same Kingsmen apocalypse in this first act as the original’s third act feels very lazy, as does the Hollywood cliché for raising stakes in the finale.  This is a bloated movie: Tatum is barely in it,  Jeff Bridges even less so, and the impulsive jackass President played by Bruce Greenwood (!) feels like a late Trump-bashing addition to the script; especially his final scene which is a transparent and asinine piece of wish fulfilment. The running time could be trimmed by removing Elton John; his foul-mouthed temper-tantrums in support add nothing. Indeed all the swearing lacks the purposeful artistry of a McDonagh or Mamet.

A notably bombastic yet unmemorable score is punctuated by ecstatic uses of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ for elaborate fights as Vaughn relentlessly searches for but never really finds an action sequence to equal the church brawl from the original. Like The Matrix Reloaded, physical reality is traded for bullet-time and CGI, and the magic of choreography is lost. Oddly the most effective use of music is the most muted; John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ for an all guns blazing character moment. Hanna Alstrom’s Princess is now Eggsy’s girlfriend, possibly as a response to criticism, yet Poppy Delevingne’s femme fatale Clara is subjected to even more tasteless comic use than Alstrom was… Moore’s super-villain has an interesting plan; but you feel Vaughn and Goldman understand it to articulate something meaningful that they never actually articulate.

This strains to equal the fun quality its predecessor had naturally, but, despite many misgivings, there are enough good action sequences, gags, performances, and uses of pop to make this worth your cinema ticket.

3/5

August 26, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

The ill-advised Rupert Friend takes up Timothy Olyphant’s cross in a reboot that makes 2007’s Hitman look like John Wick.

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Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds) designed them to be the perfect soldier, a human weapon. But then he escaped… Now, haunted by her past, his daughter Katia Van Dees (Hannah Ware) seeks him in Berlin. But, meeting her father’s creations; the genetically engineered killing machines Agent 47 (Friend) and Syndicate operative John Smith (Zachary Quinto); she realises she cannot run, she must fight, to discover her destiny… For, despite being bred for superior intelligence, Katia had never realised her name sounded uncannily like the French ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ and that her Spidey-sense screamed ‘Agent!’, while all the lethally skilled operatives of the Syndicate and their rival rogue Agents at large were incapable of refining their search parameters based on their intel on Litvenko to locate him in Singapore; Syndicate HQ. Yet Syndicate chairman Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) hunts Litvenko to restart the Agent programme.

Hitman: Agent 47 is beset by three distinct layers of unreality. What the characters do is bafflingly unlike reasonable cinematic behaviour; John Smith and Katia flee from the pursuing 47, and all concerned conduct themselves at a walking pace as if this was an It Follows parody. Action sequences are chopped to bits by Nicolas De Toth’s editing, which you suspect is hiding poorly directed footage, or rendered with so much crummy CGI that you are watching a computer game; a particular offender being the Singapore street assault where 47 guns down zip-cording assassins like the embarrassingly fake Smiths in Matrix Reloaded. The third layer of unreality is the astonishingly derivative script, which makes The Blacklist, a show which recently had James Spader reference a particular Marathon Man scene as they were ripping it off, look as original as Primer.

The basic set-up recalls Dark Angel: Katia is Max, Litvenko is Sandeman, the Agent program is Manticore, there’re even barcodes on people’s necks. Occasional muttering about how emotionless automaton 47 is learning empathy should make Terminator 2 fans mutter ‘If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, then maybe we can too’. Katia’s DNA was coded for heightened survival skills, indistinguishable from Raimi’s cinematic Spidey-sense. John Smith is unkillable because of his sub-dermal titanium-alloy body-armour, so all he needs are Wolverine’s claws. And then there’s The Matrix… There’s a fight on an underground railway line with trains roaring past, there’s acrobatic use of guns and kung-fu showdowns, there’s even a scene where 47 walks thru a security check packing weapons while his bulky bag is X-rayed. Le Clerq is impossible to kill, 14 Agents have died trying, notes 47, in tones that make you think Friend is repressing lines like ‘Everyone who has stood their ground against an Agent has died’. John Smith injects Litvenko with horrible chemicals to make him spill, then Le Clerq shocks his subordinates by interrogating Litvenko alone, using some of Agent Smith’s body-language and actual lines from the equivalent scene with Morpheus; and then Neo 47 appears outside with a helicopter gunship… Tuned out by such nonsense one scans for absurdities. 47’s inexplicable hacking makes one muse that to a primitive screenwriter any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Smith’s ‘For f***’s sake Doctor, just tell me what I want to know’ sounds so genuinely annoyed, it’s like Quinto just wanted to wrap already. Marco Beltrami’s score ditching his decent 47 theme for random inappropriate surf guitar seems equally fed-up.

If ever wee small hours find drunken friends split between The Matrix, Terminator 2, and Dark Angel, they can compromise by watching all three at once in the shape of this profoundly stupid movie.

0.5/5

April 10, 2015

John Wick

 

Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a retired hit-man who finds himself drawn into conflict with his former employer after a senseless act of random violence.

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Wick is grieving for the death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), the woman for whom he turned his back on his lethal profession. After the funeral he receives an unexpected final gift from Helen, an adorable puppy to keep him company in their spacious New Jersey home. And Wick keeps his grief together; until a random encounter with Iosef (Alfie Allen) leads to the theft of his beloved 68 Mustang and the murder of his dog. Iosef has no idea why his father, Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), is so upset about his extracurricular activities, until he’s told that Wick used to be Viggo’s go-to assassin… After a botched attempt to resolve things Wick arrives in NYC, checking in at hit-man central, The Continental, to prepare to exact vengeance. And before you can say RAMPAGE! things escalate.

Don’t call it a comeback! Okay, maybe call it a comeback. 47 Ronin wasn’t truly released, it escaped, so this is the first Keanu movie to properly hit Irish screens since The Private Lives of Pippa Lee in 2009, and it puts him really properly back in the game. Reuniting with his Matrix stunt team was an inspired move, as co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make a terrific debut with this lean, mean action flick. Their DP Jonathan Sela has made terrible films look glossy so it must be a relief to lend a washed-out colour palette and slick visuals to a good film, while writer Derek Kolstad ups his game substantially from his resume of Dolph Lundgren vehicles. There’s even a redemptive cameo from Matrix Reloaded watchmaker Randall Duk Kim as a doctor patching up wounded John Wick.

And as well as Kim, Reloaded agent Daniel Bernhardt appears, and finally gets to fight Neo; although neither of their two punishing clashes reaches the brutal heights of his Parker tangle with the State. Kim is the in-house doctor of the Continental, where Lance Reddick is the attentive concierge and Ian McShane the civilised owner. The Continental is straight out of The Man from UNCLE, like many moments in this movie (such as Thomas Sadoski’s cameo) where delirious silliness is played perfectly straight. These hit-men, from Marcus (Willem Dafoe), to Harry (Clarke Peters), to Ms Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), are all remarkably civilised; Wick in particular seems universally beloved as a stand-up guy. Viggo amusingly seems to lose his mind from stress as the movie proceeds, powered by rumbling, aggressive music from Tyler Bates and (in another Matrix nod) Marilyn Manson.

John Wick is a total fantasy action flick, with self-referential nods to Keanu’s past, deliriously silly conceits, headshots as continuous as a computer game, and judo that’s a joy to watch in properly edited and framed sequences. But it’s almost shocking what a relief it is to see such competence after the likes of Captain America 2. The early scenes of Wick grieving are conveyed with a montage of telling images. Staggeringly this seems super-cinematic, like some rediscovery of Eisenstein, because we’ve reached a nadir of clunky-as-you-like-it exposition. The shot of Wick with sympathisers in his house after the funeral, followed by a shot of how he’s alone in the house after they leave, is a perfect communication in a few seconds of a lived reality that many films these days would agonise over with three pages of redundant dialogue.

It would be churlish not to award John Wick 5 stars if Birdman received 5; because, while Birdman has a flaw (in the shape of Lindsay Duncan’s caricatured critic) that does not matter, there are no flaws in the execution of John Wick’s ambitions.

5/5

November 25, 2014

Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence assumes her role as symbol of the revolution in the third instalment of The Hunger Games; which might be the best one yet.

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Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is suffering from the experience of the Quarter Quell even more than the trauma of the original Hunger Games; hiding in tunnels, having panic attacks, and in total denial that her home, District 12, has been destroyed. Her rescuer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has taken her to the underground bunker that houses the survivors of District 13’s destruction by the forces of the Capitol. He introduces her to President Coin (Julianne Moore), and, after, Katniss is allowed to see District 12 for herself, takes charge of turning Katniss into the Mockingjay – symbol of the Revolution. But it’s only after shooting a hysterically inept propaganda video that Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) makes a ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ speech, and Katniss is allowed into combat; trailed by Plutarch’s recruit, film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Katniss’ raw reactions make her a weapon in a propaganda war, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) taunting her with his own weapon – Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

“Moves and countermoves,” as Donald Sutherland whispers, are the substance of this film; and it makes for an unusual and shadowy blockbuster. The characters in the Capitol are distanced from us: President Snow only appears 5 times, Peeta and Caesar (Stanley Tucci) are merely faces on giant television screens, other kidnapped victors are mentioned but not seen. The relationship of the air war of propaganda videos to the ground war of rebel action is shown by director Francis Lawrence utilising the ever-increasing budget to flesh out more and more of the geographical variety of the world of Panem. Loggers in District 7 rebelling against Snow’s increased quotas take up Katniss’ spontaneous rallying cry “If we burn, you burn with us” after her traumatic baptism of fire into the war in District 8. Rebels in District 5 turn Katniss’ folk-song, creatively edited by Plutarch, into a revolutionary marching song; like ‘John Brown’s Body’ morphing into the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

A long-take where Katniss walks down the ramp of a hovercraft which takes off to reveal the ruins behind her before we follow her as she walks into rubble exemplifies both Francis Lawrence’s masterful use of CGI and the exceptional sets. District 12 resembles Terminator 2’s skull-strewn future, a wave of humanity descending a spiral staircase in District 13 is rendered hypnotic, and Coin’s addresses to the populace in that bunker make you appreciate how poorly realised Zion was in the Matrix sequels. The decision to split Suzanne Collins’ novel in two is fully justified as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, and also Jonathan from Buffy!) provide a screenplay that makes us fear anyone; including the ever stoic Gale (Liam Hemsworth); could die, ratchets up tensions for its suspenseful finale, and drops a truly creepy character detail during it to boot. Francis Lawrence rises to the challenge of creating a different type of Hunger Games movie, while Jennifer Lawrence retains Katniss’ fire while layering her with uncertainty.

Interstellar is the most intelligent blockbuster of 2014, but Mockingjay’s tactical battle might be the most interesting popcorn movie.

4/5

November 14, 2013

The Counsellor

Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus scene-stealer Michael Fassbender for a brutal tale of drug trafficking; written directly for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

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Fassbender is ‘the counsellor’, the exact nature of whose practice is left as vague as his name. He buys a diamond in Amsterdam (from a cameoing Bruno Ganz) to propose to his naive girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). The money to finance this lavish lifestyle will come from going into business with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a cheetah-owning drug dealer with pretensions to being a nightclub impresario, and sagacious middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Hovering around the edges of this one-time business arrangement though is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who unnerves everyone. Unsurprisingly everything quickly goes sideways, and, with 20 million dollars worth of blow in the wind, scary people from Ciudad Juarez who don’t mess around are soon skipping over the border to El Paso to kill all concerned – this being McCarthy’s patented sprung-trap approach to the drugs trade…

The Counsellor’s dialogue is pure McCarthy in the way 2007’s Sleuth is pure Pinter. Sub-Hemingway shtick like the early “Are you really that cold?” “The truth has no temperature”, vies with unconscious quotations of Keats, and, in a lengthy scene with Ruben Blades’s Mexican drug-lord Jefe, a reworking of a Matrix Reloaded speech by The Oracle. McCarthy’s foreshadowing is hysterically blunt. When the hideous mechanical device the bolito is described, or a snuff movie involving necrophilia, the characters ought to lean in and say ‘It could happen to you! It probably will, in about 40 minutes…’ McCarthy’s interest, par No Country for Old Men, is apparently solely in the operation of the mechanical vice of the drugs trade that slaughters all involved for any misstep. Characters are introduced, and then slaughtered by new characters that we never learn anything about.

The Counsellor works best in its wordless sequences. People at work displaying their murderous tradecraft are absorbing, brutal, and vivid; an assault on a drugs truck and an intricately planned garrotting being the standout set-pieces. One could forgive McCarthy’s unrealistic dialogue in what purports to be an unflinchingly realistic observation of the mechanics of drug trafficking were it not for his troubling characterisation. Beginning with the uncomfortable cold open McCarthy displays a very bizarre interest in hyper-sexualised female characters. Diaz’s goofy grin is rendered pleasingly cruel, but her Malkina displays a very Puritan prurience in Catholics confessing about sexual sins, and that’s before we get to what, following Reiner’s lead, we will call ‘the catfish scene’ – which is WEIRD beyond belief. McCarthy’s lack of interest in his leads is exemplified by Fassbender’s titular lawyer being utterly irrelevant by the finale.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s bizarre co-dependency ruined them both during the 2000s, we can only hope Fassbender is not about to be snared in the same glossy trap.

2.5/5

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