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Atomic Blonde

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In the middle of David Leitch’s unashamedly achingly 80s spy thriller, there is an action sequence presented in a protracted long take. The sequence is stunning in its execution, as combatants clash in an elevator, up and down stairs, into and out of rooms, guns spit, knives and razors slash and fists, feet, elbows and all manner of available weapons collide with bodies. It is a breathless and bravura set piece that genuinely hurts and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the effects of this violence. The rest of the film hangs off this tent pole, rising to the set piece’s crescendo and then falling away from it and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Atomic Blonde never quite reaches such a height again. Despite this, Leitch still crafts an effective period spy adventure from Kurt Johnstad’s script, based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The city in question is 1989 Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a city of vice, corruption and constant surveillance. Into this seething swamp of sin comes cool as (and frequently immersed in) ice MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), sent to retrieve a list of undercover agents, which is also being hunted by the CIA, KGB, French intelligence and probably the dodgy bloke on the corner. It’s a well-worn plot imbued with regularly crunchy action and great attention to period style, as the film is blaringly 80s in its fashion, music, decor and geopolitical backdrop. Practically every scene emphasises a mise-en-scene that is garish, vivid and frequently drenched in neon; if there’s a film with more blue filters this year I’ll be very surprised. Looking back on this period with such overt nostalgia, Atomic Blonde is a fairly insubstantial 115 minutes, but it has enough kitsch charm and stylistic brio to earn its keep.

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Kong: Skull Island

 

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Sometimes the most unexpected aspects of a film are the most enjoyable. In the case of Kong: Skull Island, which I enjoyed for multiple reasons, the most delightful aspect was the film’s relation to another film, a relation that is far from accidental and makes KSI an expansion of an established cinematic universe. The question therefore is whether Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film works on its own or if spends too much time being referential. The answer is most assuredly the former, as Vogt-Roberts crafts an immersive thrill ride with a motley crew of adventurers journeying to the titular island, only to find more than they bargained for. This crew are diverse in terms of gender, race and personality, with tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), disgruntled US army colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and visionary Bill Randa (John Goodman), who provides the main link to another film, as well as various other characters that have just enough background to make them more than faceless beast fodder. The 1973 setting, during the US withdrawal from Vietnam, establishes a conceit of humans’ non-superiority in relation to nature. The film explores this premise as several of the characters develop a new appreciation of the environment and their relationship with it. The most important aspect of this is of course Kong himself (played in performance capture by Toby Kebbell, who also plays soldier Jack Chapman), a massive presence who looms over the film even when off screen. Unlike other versions of the big ape, KSI does not overplay a Beauty and the Beast angle, as Weaver is far more capable than Ann Darrow and Kong remains unequivocally wild. This wild otherness gives the film its engrossing atmosphere, which is enhanced by other creatures and never lets up, Vogt-Roberts’ dynamic visual style conveying the thrills and spills of our heroes. With a post-credits scene setting up future developments, this is one island I’ll be keen to revisit.

Patriots Day

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A real life tragedy is a delicate subject to put on screen, especially one that features the incendiary topic of terrorism. Peter Berg largely strikes the necessary tone throughout Patriots Day, a dramatisation of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. The film expresses the horror of the situation without overplaying a sense of patriotism, nor being exploitative of the bomb victims. Berg’s great strength is his combination of CCTV, news and cell phone footage with standard cinematic techniques. Aerial shots of Boston provide the broad scale of the story, while shaky cam coverage places the viewer within the events. This blend of visual styles is especially effective in the immediate aftermath of the blasts as it conveys the chaos of a terrorist attack. Subsequent gun battles between the police and the bombers are similarly gripping, the viewer placed at an uncomfortable proximity to genuinely frightening violence. These sequences present the various unconnected figures involved in the marathon and the manhunt for the perpetrators, who are thankfully not presented as raving psychotics but as little men wanting glory. Scenes featuring bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), as well as victims Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan), Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) and Sean Collier (Jake Picking), as well as other people involved in the events demonstrate the randomness and indiscriminate nature of the attacks and their aftermath. The film’s weaker sections are those of coherence, as it slides into generic thriller territory closely connected to the professional redemption of Mark Wahlberg’s fictional cop Tommy Saunders. When Saunders interacts with the individuals actually involved in the attack and subsequent investigation – including police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and special FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) – the film’s coherence sits unevenly with the chaos of the blasts and disparate nature of the investigation. Overall Patriots Day is uneven, but its blending of different types of footage is effective and Berg is to be applauded for avoiding simplistic flag-waving.

Expanding and Continuing Part Three: Transforming to Extinction

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I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.

I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.

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This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.

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Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.

Freshness and Familiarity Part Three – Time, gentlemen, please

I saw The Hangover Part III unexpectedly when, after I originally not planned to bother, one of my workmates suggested it and I decided “Why not?” Damning reviews and user comments had lowered my expectations, so I did not anticipate being impressed, but low expectations have previously led to pleasant surprises (see Olympus Has Fallen), so I approached Todd Phillips’ final (?) adventure of the Wolf Pack with an open mind.

To be fair, I was not exactly disappointed because I had not expected very little, and it is very easy to make me laugh. The last laugh-free comedy I saw was The Cable Guy (Ben Stiller, 1996) on TV, and The Hangover Part III is similarly unfunny. But it lacks laughs for a different reason, which makes it an interesting continuation/conclusion (hopefully) to the franchise. The Cable Guy is not funny because all of its jokes are creepy, based around the premise of Jim Carrey’s character being borderline psychotic. Hardly great comedic material, which is a shame because writer/director Ben Stiller went on to find great humour in male models (Zoolander, 2001) and Hollywood stars (Tropic Thunder, 2008). The Hangover Part III is a different beast because it deviates from the formula of its previous instalments, making it a sequel mainly by virtue of its characters, although some plot elements continue from the first and second films. The first film featured the bachelor party in Las Vegas that went horribly wrong and the Wolf Pack had to find their missing friend. The second one had exactly the same premise, but cranked up to 11, set in Bangkok and with rather more racist humour. Part III is less comedic and more dramatic, as the Wolf Pack pursues Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). The opening scene in a Thai prison explicitly references The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994), and the evasion of danger remains a conceit throughout, as Doug (Justin Bartha) is held hostage by Marshall (John Goodman) while Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zack Galifianakis) attempt to find Chow. Their escapades include breaking into a heavily fortified house and invading the penthouse suite of a Las Vegas hotel, as well as grappling with some fighting cocks (don’t ask).

While these stunts are dramatic they are not particularly funny, and much of the film feels as though the characters have stepped out of their genre into something more akin to Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) or Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988). But the action scenes are not gripping enough to be exciting nor crazy enough to be funny. In a standout moment, Phil and Alan abseil down a rope of sheets from the roof of a hotel to the balcony below. Alan (of course) loses his grip and Phil tells him to drop down but not to push off; Alan (of course) pushes off and almost falls off to his death, Phil pulling him back in the nick of time. I found this sequence dramatic, but as I swallowed my heart back into my chest, I wondered why it wasn’t funny. It is not that the scene could not be funny because it was a brush with death – such narrow escapes are played for laughs in films as varied as Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) – but this scene is played straight, with Alan’s mental peculiarity simply a device that almost kills him.

The lack of humour in Alan’s madness is particularly annoying, because the scenes that do play it for laughs are among the funnier moments, such as his eulogy at his father’s funeral and reaction to his friends’ intervention. His first scene in the film involves a giraffe-related motor vehicle accident, which is funny in a horrific way (much like the tazering scene in the first film). Alan and Chow demonstrating their peculiar friendship is passingly amusing, as are Chow’s intoxicated outbursts. At one point, Chow parachutes off a tall building, singing “I Believe I Can Fly” and proclaiming his adoration of cocaine. Stu catches him on the roof of a limousine and has to drive blind before almost killing Chow when he stops suddenly. Had this scene been simply a crazy stunt, it might have been funny, but the stakes are such that if Chow gets away, Doug will be killed, and this neuters the humour because the two elements are not meshed together. This is the film’s fundamental problem – it continually feels like two films jostling for dominance, and both end up losing. Freshness in this case spoils the recipe, and the bursts of familiarity feel like another film trying to re-establish itself without success.

There are enough of these bursts to indicate what The Hangover Part III might have been. Best of these is Alan finding love (seriously) with Cassie (Megan McCarthy), as their scenes are both funny and touching. Alan’s romance suggests the film I would have liked to see, with the Wolf Pack preparing for Alan and Cassie’s wedding, and then in a post credits scene they wake up the morning after asking “What the hell happened?” That would have actually been The Hangover Part III, and considering how outrageous the events appear to have been (boob job?!), I predict the results would be hilarious, or at least wild, zany and shocking. Unfortunately, the film we get is none of these things, because it tries to be something other than a Hangover film. The franchise’s laddish, outrageous and sometimes shocking type of humour is not for everyone, but at least the first two films committed to this and delivered wild and zany humour. Part III’s failure to deliver on this front results in a film that is confused, misguided and deeply unsatisfying, providing a few laugh-out-loud moments, but not enough to justify the involvement of the talent involved nor the investment of the cinema viewer. Perhaps it’ll work better on DVD, especially if drunk. Just be careful what you drink…

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“Argo” – balancing act extraordinaire

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Argo accomplishes the remarkable feat of striking a balance between drama, thrills, laughs and politics.  It could have been an outright comedy, sending up Hollywood in a merciless satire, and it could have been a thoroughly tense and gripping espionage thriller.  To be both of these and more is testament to the craftsmanship of Chris Terrio’s screenplay and Ben Affleck’s superb direction, which handles the different styles necessary for the contrasting sections and maintains an appropriate tone across the disparate elements.  Equally, Argo avoids the pitfalls of being either a tedious and offensive piece of anti-Iranian propaganda, or a ponderous piece of finger-wagging at the US.

 

Politics

Where The Iron Lady spectacularly failed to be political, Argo accomplishes a remarkable piece of political balance.  In the current climate, propaganda and political correctness are in constant tension, and Argo manages this tension by not offering judgement.  Affleck does not apportion blame for the hostage crisis, but also does not shy away from historical evidence.  The opening storyboards that relate the history of Iran feature a nationalised oil industry that made the people prosperous, and the replacement of that government, with foreign aid, by one that would serve the oil interests of the USA and the UK.  Consequently, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 seems a reasonable response to almost thirty years of foreign-backed government that disrespected traditional Islamic beliefs.  Politically, this is a bold stance for Affleck to take, presenting an Islamic uprising as a political revolution rather than religious fanaticism.  Terrorism does not come up, and while the Iranian Revolutionary Army is certainly intimidating and aggressive, the members are not presented as psychotic, but justifiably angry and indignant.

 

Nor does the film perform a laboured critique of US foreign policy.  Plenty of films do this and many quite well, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007), Fair Game (Doug Liman, 2010) and Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010).  But Argo contents itself with simply presenting the historical evidence and allowing the viewer to form their own opinion.  By focusing on the human element, the film allows us to see the impact upon ordinary people of both revolutionary anger and capitalist greed.  There may be some who bemoan any presentation of the CIA and US foreign policy as anything other than the epitome of evil – even a humanitarian mission like that undertaken by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) can be seen as an act of American imperialism and the Embassy fugitives should have been caught.  I find this attitude unduly cynical and quite offensive – if we can feel empathy for the Iranian people then we can for the Americans who are equally victimised, ultimately by the same culprit.  Or to quote Lester Siegel (Alan Alda), “Argo fuck yourself!”

 

Comedy

Satires about Hollywood range from the unnerving Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) to the outrageous For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006).  Argo accomplishes much that these films do and does so with neatness and economy, plus it has the bonus of being based on actual events.  Lester Siegel and John Chambers (John Goodman) were a real producer and make-up artist in the 1970s, and Argo’s presentation of the lies, bluster and outright absurdity in movie-making is presented as both plausible and completely normal.  This is crucial – rather than making Hollywood appear silly through caricature or stylisation, Argo plays it straight with simple presentation, again allowing the viewer to make up their own mind.  I laughed out loud at several points during the Hollywood section of the narrative, such as Siegel’s anecdote about “knowing” Warren Beatty.  Alda’s performance is larger than life which suits his character, and in a town known for frauds, fame and fantasy, he fits perfectly.  The stages of film production are traced in all their showbiz glory, including the acquisition of a script, a cast reading complete with sci-fi costumes, and the more mundane office and (essential) advertisement in Variety.  The cumulative effect of these scenes give the viewer reason to care that this film is produced – an interesting what-if would be for Argo to be entirely about the production of such a film; would the viewer’s investment been as high?  I believe that it would – the passion and conviction of Siegel is infectious, and there is much to be enjoyed in the depiction of success, especially in such a weird and wonderful setting as Hollywood.

 

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While the Hollywood section of Argo is highly amusing, the bulk of the film follows thriller conventions, from the storming of the US Embassy and the escape of the six fugitives, to the final act when Mendez joins them and must lead them through Tehran.  Argo delivers several highly tense set pieces – there were at least three points at which I let out a breath I had been holding.  The casting helps: while Affleck is the biggest name in the film, the other recognisable faces – Goodman, Alda, Cranston – are all either in Washington or Hollywood.  The fugitives in Tehran are all played by relative unknowns, so there is no star baggage to indicate who is more likely to live or die.  Furthermore, the opening scenes establish these characters very well, thrust into a perilous situation.  The sense of fear is conveyed through the combination of the performances and Affleck’s close, intimate cinematography, and also the ambient soundtrack.  Shifting from hushed tones to eruptions of shouting, the atmosphere of omnipresent danger is almost palpable.  I was struck by the sound of footsteps – hurried, on-the-verge-of-panic steps as they run from the embassy, and also voices – bustle in the market, discussions among the Revolutionaries at the embassy, and most of all in the breathlessly tense climax at the airport, when the fugitives are in most jeopardy.

 

Perhaps ironically, tension is exacerbated through the absence of violence.  Not a single American agent fires a weapon in Argo, and despite the constant threat the film has few moments of actual violence.  This places emphasis upon the actors and their fearful reactions, as well as those playing Iranians, especially Farshad Farahat as a checkpoint guard at Tehran Airport who is frightening when shouting in Persian, but terrifying when whispering in English.  Similarly, the danger to the fugitives is increased through the (literal) piecing together of shredded documents, rather than men with guns chasing them.  When armed men finally do chase the fugitives, it is all the more nerve-shredding for being the culmination of all the tension that has been built up previously.

 

Argo is also interesting as a period piece.  I was struck by the moments in which Mendez or his CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) communicate via landlines, diplomatic telephones and radios, as these contrast with the modern day equivalent where computers and cell phones are always within easy reach.  It is surprising how much tension can be generated by the simple inability to contact the crucial person who will give the essential authorisation, and if the person is not beside the telephone, lives will be lost.  The CIA desperately trying to find somebody without the advantages of surveillance cameras and electronic tracking could seem quaint and dated, but it actually increases the drama as it appears strange and alien in contrast to the high tech of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer (clearly, secret agents always have the initials JB).  How do you get hold of the crucial person when they have no mobile and are not in the office to answer the phone?  The resource used time and time again in Argo is creativity, a crucial element of intelligence that (at least on screen) can be lost in the jungle of technology.  This resonates with the production of a movie, where creativity is needed at every stage, from script to publicity, creating another meta-cinematic link between the fiction spun by Mendez and the narrative spun by Affleck, and links Argo with a recent spate of nostalgic spy thrillers.

 

Nostalgia

Like the contemporary-set Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) and the period features Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), Argo displays a nostalgia for old-style espionage, more dependent on individual resourcefulness and ingenuity than high-powered technology.  Mendez’s mission is entirely dependent on subterfuge and his wits; despite the urgency of some situations, patience is also needed as an instant response may not come. Much as Skyfall features a steady stripping away of 21st century benefits, so Argo demonstrates a time, not so long ago, when high speed internet connections (which always seem so much more reliable for movie characters than for us mere mortals) were not the saving grace.

 

The nostalgia is established from the opening credits, which are presented with the Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s.  There also appeared to be scratches on the print, which was impossible because I watching a digital projection.  For there to be “scratches” means that the appearance of scratches had been added to the film data digitally, and this indicates a remarkable (and possibly excessive) commitment to the presentation of period.  Historical context is not confined to what is represented but extends to the manner of presentation, creating an air of nostalgia that extends beyond the screen and into the auditorium itself.

 

Personally, I did not need digital scratches or an old style logo to draw me into the past.  I was born in the same year as the Iranian Revolution so I remember scratches on celluloid prints and often found them irritating.  Some lament the passing of projectionists and the rise of digital projection, but the presentation of a pristine image aids the illusion of looking through a window into another world, place or time.  Scratches could interfere with engagement in the narrative, if one pays too close attention to the presentation.  That said, after the opening minutes I was sufficiently drawn into the film that I didn’t notice any further scratches.

 

The nostalgia demonstrated in Argo, as well as the other films identified above, suggests a perspective on espionage and foreign relations that links back to the film’s political balance.  By immersing the viewer within the context of the story, providing a potted history lesson and allowing the Iranian perspective as well as the American, not to mention emphasising the importance of Canadian assistance to the mission, Argo offers a perspective that is not only politically balanced but historically astute and remarkably multi-cultural.  It is a tale of globalisation set in a time before globalisation was a buzzword.  Rather than being a story of espionage for nefarious purposes, here the CIA saves lives and the casting of blame or identification of villains serves no purpose.  All over the world, now as then, people are in danger and in terrible situations, often as a result of political decisions made by those who never have to experience the consequences.  Argo draws attention to consequence and interconnections, and dares to suggest that international cooperation is a way forward, rather than individual nations and agendas.