Anything they can do, she can do tougher

Atomic Blonde

GINGER Rogers said that anything Fred Astaire could dance, she could dance backwards – and in high heels. Charlize Theron will know how she felt.

Theron plays an MI6 agent who is more than a match for macho action-men like Jason Bourne or latter-day James Bond. She shoots, punches, scissor-kicks and car-chases her way through a Berlin at the end of the Cold War. And does so in stiletto-heeled boots, and a series of figure-hugging outfits that take the “undercover” out of “agent.”

This is not so much ‘Lights, Camera. Action’ as ‘Neon, Soundtrack, ACTION!!!!’ The film is washed in glowing neon right from the opening credits. The story rips along to a background of 1980s tracks from George Michael, Nena, and New Order. And as for the action…

Director  David Leitch is also a stuntman (he’s been a regular stunt double for Brad Pitt), and boy does it show. Really, this is a stuntman’s film. The action shots come thick and fast, with a whack that makes you wince. It all culminates in a bone-snapping, face-smashing, body-wrecking long shot, where Theron fights her way down a staircase, through an apartment and into a car chase.

The plot – British, Russian, French and East German spooks in an increasingly violent search for a missing list of British agents operating undercover behind the Iron Curtain – is just the vehicle for the action.

Director: David Leitch

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan.

Verdict: Stylish, brutal, and very, very enjoyable. ****

 

 

 

 

My 5 Favourite Films of 2017 (so far)

SUMMER blockbuster season seems as good a time as any to look back at what films I’ve seen this year, and select my top five (in purely chronological order):

 

Manchester By The Sea:

Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams.

Director: Kenneth Lonergan.

A restrained study in grief and loss, with an outstanding six-star performance by Casey Affleck at its heart.

Lion:

Cast: Sunny Pawer, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara.

Director: Garth Davis.

This tale of a lost child’s long journey home delivered plenty of emotional clout.

Moonlight:

Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Jangle Monáe, Mahershala Ali.

Director: Barry Jenkins.

Named the Best Picture Oscar winner (eventually), a complex tale in which what remains unsaid is as important as what is said.

Their Finest:

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston.

Director: Lone Scherfig.

Let’s hear it for the British. Nostalgic and patriotic, with some genuinely emotional moments, and a convincing Welsh accent from Gemma Arterton.

Baby Driver:

Cast: Andel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx.

Director: Edgar Wright.

A superbly choreographed match-up of a brilliant soundtrack and incredible driving stunts.

And a couple of duds

Going In Style:

A cast of starry veterans wasted in a predictable and limp tale, with some embarrassingly awful ‘action’ scenes.

Alien Covenant:

Not every film lives up to its hype. This was a tedious reprisal of over-familiar scenarios.

Apecalypse Now

War For The Planet Of The Apes

I TAKE no credit (or blame, depending on your opinion of the pun) for the headline to this post. It appears as a piece of graffiti in the film.

The latest in the Planet Of The Apes franchise, following Rise and Dawn, obviously pays homage to Coppola’s Vietnam epic. But there are strong nods also to quest Westerns like The Searchers, or – more recently – The Revenant. Director Matt Reeves also has some fun with POW escape movie tropes.

The title is actually misleading. The film opens with the scene of an ambush, and climaxes with a full scale battle (though even then it manages to overturn expectations of a humans v apes showdown). But what happens between these two set pieces is an intelligent examination of the shifting morality of resistance and revenge.

Andy Serkis, as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and Woody Harrelson, as the Kurtz-like rogue colonel in charge of the soldiers, are two conflicted figures. Each is excellent, and their scenes together are riveting.

One more thing; the special effects (by Weta Workshop) are extraordinary.

Verdict: Sentimental and moralising perhaps, but absorbing and thought-provoking. ****

Dunkirk ***

IT has gathered a lot of critical acclaim – as well as doing very good business at the box office – but I found writer/director Christopher Nolan’s would-be epic film on the evacuation of more than 300,000 British soldiers from the beaches of France, under the nose of a conquering German army, disappointing.

The cinematography is impressive, but there is nothing especially innovative about Nolan’s direction. There are three narrative threads – on land, on sea, and in the air – which weave together in a non-chronological way. But there is nothing original in this narrative juxtapositioning and time looping.

There is little dialogue, beyond a few explanatory exchanges between Army and Navy officers organising the evacuation. Despite a cast that includes the likes of James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, the actors are not called on to do very much. This is the director’s film, not theirs. More’s the pity.

Verdict: sadly misfiring on land, sea and air.

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming ****

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Several months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker, with the help of his mentor Tony Stark, tries to balance his life as an ordinary high school student in Queens, New York City, while fighting crime as his superhero alter ego Spider-Man as a new threat, the Vulture, appears (Credit IDMB for plot synopsis).

Last week, I said that Baby Driver, contrary to my expectations, would appeal well beyond a teenage/young adult audience. While Spider-Man: Homecoming is also a very good film, I think it will – unlike Baby Driver – resonate most with younger filmgoers.

That is partly because Marvel Studios have again cast Tom Holland in the role of Parker/Spider-Man, after his appearance in Captain America: Civil War.  I did not see the earlier Spider-Man movies, with Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield in the title role, but each of these actors was in his 30s when he donned the superhero costume. Those who did see them, agree that Holland is much more authentic as a teenager.

It will also appeal a lot to a young audience because much of the film is about Parker’s everyday tribulations as a typical teenage schoolboy. You may imagine that, having super powers, he would inevitably be the coolest boy in school. In fact, he is nervy, nerdy (he enjoys building Star Wars models with his best friend Ned), and has a crush on the genuinely cool girl, who he fears is way out of his dating league.

How much you enjoy these scenes of pool parties, school quizzes, and prom dances, may depend on how long ago your own schooldays ended. For this 60-something, it did become just a touch tedious.

Fortunately, us oldies can enjoy the wonderful performance by Michael Keaton as Adrain Tomes/the Vulture. Described by one film critic this week as the first sic-fi villain to emerge from the credit crunch, Tomes is not a megalomaniac bent on world domination, nor an alien with supernatural powers of destruction. He is a hard-working guy who gets shafted by the US Government, fears his family is about to lose their home, and turns to crime.

When Parker tells him that his misfortunes do not justify selling (alien-technology) weapons to gangsters, Tomes replies by asking Parker how he thinks his friend Tony Stark got rich in the first place. “We build their roads, we fight their wars, but they don’t care about us,” he says. A sentiment that will be shared and applauded by many people in this populist political age.

So, while millennials may provide its most enthusiastic audience, the film still has considerable wider appeal, with its original take on the Marvel Universe of superhero adventures.

A traditional high school movie, with superheroes and uber-villains as extra-curricular activities.

Director: Jon Watts (Cop Car 2015, The Onion News Network 2011).

Cast:

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tom Holland (The Impossible 2012, Captain America: Civil War 2016).

Adrian Toomes/the Vulture: Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice 1988, Batman 1989, Batman Returns 1992, Birdman 2014, Spotlight 2015, The Founder 2016).

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man 2008, Sherlock Holmes 2009, The Avengers 2012).

Ned: Jacob Batalon.

 

 

Baby Driver *****

Baby has been a getaway driver for gang boss Doc since he made the mistake of stealing Doc’s Mercedes when he was an underage joyrider. He drowns out the tinnitus that he suffers as a result of a childhood car accident with the sound of his favourite tunes on one of his collection of iPods. When he meets waitress Deborah, he sees the chance of a better life, but Doc has one last job for his driver.

When I saw the first trailers for this film, I thought it was surely made for an exclusive audience of speed-freak teenagers. I was wrong. I’m sure they will love it, but so will anybody else who is happy to sit back and be taken on a handbrake-turn journey that incorporates action, violence, love and the Great American Dream of just heading down the highway and leaving all your troubles behind.

The result is a hugely entertaining movie made for the summer.

In the lead role, relative newcomer Ansel Elgort delivers a performance that is quiet and contained – until he gets behind the wheel.

The support cast is revved up on quality. Kevin Spacey’s Doc is like the type of self-contained neighbour who is punctiliously polite, but turns out to be a serial killer on the side. Jon Hamm captures Buddy’s sleazy undertow of barely contained instability, while Jamie Foxx displays his huge screen presence as the psychopathic Bats.

The film is not without its faults. Lily James’s waitress character is nothing more than a cypher, and there’s a no-no moment near the end of the film, when Doc does something sufficiently out of character to be unbelievable.

And, apart from the idea of a getaway driver who is so attached to his music that he will even delay his getaway until he finds just the right track, the film is filled with familiar heist/gangster movie tropes (e.g.: the cash-stuffed sports bags, the gang’s latex face masks, the waitress with the heart of gold, the conflicted hero, the repressed gang boss).

But enough of the flaws: this is a superbly choreographed match-up of a brilliant soundtrack and incredible driving stunts. 

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Baby), Kevin Spacey (Doc), Lily James (Deborah), John Bernthal (Griff), Elza Gonzalez (Darling), Jon Hamm (buddy), Jamie Foxx (Bats).

Director: Edgar Wright

 

Churchill. ***

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June, 1944. Ninety-six hours to D Day. The Allied forces are massed on the south coast of England. Standing in the way of the largest invasion force in history is one man; British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

Leave your preconceptions of Churchill at the cash desk; here we see an old, exhausted man, filled with foreboding about the Normandy landings, and racked with guilt about his part in the catastrophic Gallipoli landings in the first world war. He tries to stop Operation Overlord, interferes in the Allied commanders’ plans, attempts to get a berth on a British battleship for himself and King George VI, and sinks into despair and depression as he is forced to confront the fact that his romantic notions about glory are fantasy.

A study in the loneliness of leadership – be it Churchill, supreme Allied commander Eisenhower, or the British monarch – the point is laboured with too many panoramic shots of men alone on beaches or in palaces. Ironically, the film’s best scene is far more intimate, when King George VI quietly explains to Churchill why it is their duty to ‘stay at home, and stay safe.’

Strong performances, but overly episodic and repetitive. A good shot at redressing the myth, without ultimately diminishing the man.

Cast: Brian Cox (Winston Churchill), Miranda Richardson (Clementine Churchill), John Slattery (General Dwight D Eisenhower), Julian Wadham (General Bernard Montgomery), Richard Durden (General Jan Smuts), James Purefoy (King George VI), Danny Webb (General Alan Brooke).

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky.