Skyscraper (2018)

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Will Sawyer (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) is a former FBI agent and U.S. war veteran who lost his leg in active service and who now assesses security for skyscrapers. While he’s on assignment in Hong Kong, the world’s tallest and safest building catches on fire and Will gets framed for it. Now a wanted man and on the run, he must find those responsible, clear his name and somehow rescue his family members (Navy surgeon wife Neve Campbell and two kids) when they become trapped inside the inferno... A film whose matchbook pitch must have read, The Rock climbs up a burning building. Or, more concisely, a family-Oriented disaster film. Because this is a shameless attempt at the transnational market ie China wherein dialogue matters not a jot and the film doesn’t have a cast so much as cardboard cutouts. Villains? No need for characterisation, just give them faces only a mother could love: Pablo Schreiber, Roland Møller, Noah Taylor.  Job done.  Forty-five years ago critics laughed at The Towering Inferno, a thorough scrutiny of building safety with the biggest movie stars on the planet. They’re not laughing now. Keep scraping that barrel, Hollywood. This is what China deserves. Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber who I don’t imagine could be related to James. Simply disgraceful.

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The 15.17 to Paris (2018)

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You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated. In the early evening of August 21, 2015, a terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris is thwarted by three young Americans on holiday in Europe. Their lives are followed from childhood at school together in Sacramento through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack when Anthony Sadler suggests they go backpacking together after military training in Portugal.  Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos wants to visit his penpal in Berlin and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone joins them from the US and they are confronted by a gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition intending to carry out an atrocity on the 500 passengers … My God is bigger than your statistics. A unique project from Clint Eastwood, who has form in extolling the heroism of American servicemen (pace American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers).  Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay is based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. What’s extraordinary is that it stars the very men who saved lives on the Amsterdam-Paris Express. Structurally, this posed problems because the incident to which everything leads only took a couple of minutes in real time. So, interspersed with a few scenes on the train as the attack unfolds, the bulk of the story is flashbacks and backstory – Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) grow up with single moms in California until Alek is sent to live with his father in Oregon on the advice of the head teacher (Thomas Lennon) who believes the kids should be medicated for attention deficit disorder. Teamed up with misfit black kid Spencer (William Jennings) they love nothing better than playing war games and checking out WW2 battle plans. The teachers at their school (apparently with the exception of their history teacher) are male bullies which leads to unanswered questions about how these boys derived their special brand of bravery later on:  Anthony ends up working at Jamba Juice and enters his beloved military the hard way;  Alek joins the National Guard;  Spencer is in the Air Force. Spencer tells us with a smile when the boys first becomes friends, Black people don’t hunt. Their communication through their different paths is primarily via Skype. Anthony’s training is tough – he doesn’t get into his preferred area of service due to depth perception issues;  he has headphones clamped to him when the attack begins.  This is one of the ironic issues in the narrative, none highlighted because no theme beyond heroism is explored.  Since the real action is not until the film’s final sequences, the men’s friendship through adulthood is traced against their differing choices, with Alek winding up in Afghanistan, bored out of his brains doing the equivalent of mall security because as he relates, It’s all about ISIS now and they’re not here. The big irony of course is that it’s in their downtime that these soldiers encounter an Arab terrorist, on their European trip;  the moment of grace occurs when his machine gun jams as Anthony rugby tackles the assailant- a one in a million chance, Alek says.  There is only one serious casualty, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, while the terrorist has a concealed knife which he uses to slice Anthony’s neck, thankfully not fatally. Englishman Chris Norman was not hurt. The story concludes at the Elysée Palace, with real coverage of President François Hollande commending the men for their bravery. How amazing is that? The most exciting thing to happen to me on that train was meeting the son of a famous German writer who was reading the handwritten manuscript of a friend’s first novel. Who knows what anyone would do if something serious were to happen? This tells us and in precise detail. There is another issue at stake:  since he was a young boy Sadler was clearly preparing himself for greatness. That it occurred on a civilian trans-European train in the tourist season is immaterial. Islamic violence is now an everyday occurrence in the real world outside of battlegrounds;  it’s preparedness that matters. This is practically an experimental film and it walks a very difficult line between authenticity and dramatic tension but it is probably far too real to succeed as an entertainment.  These guys may not be actors and the narrative may cleave to actuality (even the scenic shots of Rome, Venice and Berlin) and the banality of real life (including poor line delivery) but when you think about it, they rock. Since you asked, the shooter, Ayoub El Khazzani, did not play himself.  There is a message in this film and if you didn’t get it, Hollande quotes Sadler: In a moment of crisis I would like people to understand that you need to do something

 

 

Miss Congeniality (2000)

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It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship program. When a domestic terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant, the FBI puts Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) in charge and he rushes to find a female agent to go undercover as a contestant, replacing the disqualified Miss New Jersey. Unfortunately, Eric’s partner FBI Special Agent Gracie  Hart (Sandra Bullock) is the only woman who can look the part despite her complete lack of refinement and femininity. She prides herself in being one of the guys and is horrified at the idea of becoming a girly girl.  Going undercover is tough and she’s taken under the wing of camp Brit Victor Melling (Michael Caine) for a total makeover, while hard as nails pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) steadily assumes the role of suspect in chief … In place of friends and relationships you have sarcasm and a gun. A light and funny take on the transformation arc with a reversal of the usual tropes, this is Bullock’s baby – she produced and shepherded the production straight into our hearts. With its fish out of order scenario intact, this proceeds to reverse expectations – becoming a beauty queen is no walk in the park, demanding starvation, exfoliation and high heels;  masquerading as a socially conscious peace-lover when you’re a gun-wielding action woman gives her more pause than she thought;  while camouflaging her true identity from alpha females who look good in swimwear troubles her as she gains new friends. As the irony ratchets up a notch with William Shatner MC’ing proceedings and the chase complements the on-stage glass harp playing and self-defence exhibition, Bullock shines in a frothy, fun star performance.  After a while you forget why you’re here! Written by regular Bullock collaborator Marc Lawrence with Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, this is directed by Donald Petrie and marks Caine and Bergen’s reunion thirtysomething years after The MagusHaven’t you been drinking too much Coppertone?

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

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I killed someone! I killed someone! Thirty-year old Audrey Stockton (Mila Kunis) is a drab woman living in LA who has just been dumped – by text! – by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux).  Best friend Morgan Freeman (Kate McKinnon) is trying to cheer her up on a night out. They vow to burn the shit he left behind in the apartment the women share. Drew calls her while he’s on a job – which involves killing people. He reappears and admits to Audrey that he’s CIA, it emerges he is a secret agent as bullets fall around them, and with his dying breath after being shot by a Ukrainian that Morgan picked up at the bar, he asks that Audrey go to Vienna to fulfill his mission and save countless lives. He gives her a Fantasy Football trophy and instructs her to meet someone called Verne at the Cafe Schiel in Vienna. The women have never been to Europe and when another secret agent, the dashing English Sebastian (Sam Heughan), gets involved it becomes less clear who the goodies and baddies really are. But the gals have been bitten by the spy bug, and are determined to save those countless lives all the same especially since it means travelling to Prague, Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Inadvertently they find they have skills that come in handy when they’re being tortured by deranged criminals. They are tagged by hitwoman/model/gymanst Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) who’s umbilically attached to her balance beam and winds up looking like The Terminator … What can I say? I didn’t even know this existed before yesterday and I just saw one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while. And that includes the slowest getaway in movie history (it’s a stick shift…)  followed by a brilliant car and bike chase that just might the wackiest since … Wacky Races. This starts with a chase in Lithuania and after dirty tricks in LA plays out in Eastern Europe before swiftly migrating to safer soil in France and Berlin – so we’re back in comfortable old Cold War territory. There’s a double-double cross with that suspect but super-handsome English agent and his co-worker Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) and some straight up objectifying adoration of their boss Wendy (Gillian Anderson) by hero-worshipping Morgan who realises she is ‘a little much’. Mother, did you get the two dick pics I sent you? This knows its spy tropes but it also knows female friendship and they’re a contrasting pair: McKinnon is the OTT over-sharing feminist actress (who’s trained in trapeze at the New Jersey Circus School!) to Kunis’ organic food store worker straight woman and she’s kinda great. She gets to act out in a zany way that wasn’t visible in the Ghostbusters retread and makes this work. The more honed script here lets her loose in a controlled and satisfying form that pays dramatic dividends – her action finale is fabulous. Kunis’ role suffers somewhat as a result of the climactic sequence but there’s a payoff in the credits (stay to watch them).  With Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser at the end of a phone to offer endless support to their needy daughter Morgan, an extraordinarily good ‘Edward Snowden’ scene (he had a thing for Morgan back in camp), this has comic chops, a lot of rude elements, actual toilet humour and some very dodgy songs on the soundtrack. It may be a spoof and follow in the big boots left by Melissa McCarthy in the hilarious Spy but it’s the most violent one I can recall and is like the souped-up Interrail trip you really wish you had taken the year you did Yerp. With, y’know, grenades and guns and thumbs and stuff. Completely daft and occasionally hilarious and never, ever dull! Written and directed by Susanna Fogel, with David Iserson on co-writing duties.  Oh my God, it’s a stick shift! Do you know how to drive a stick shift? / No!  / How do you change gear?  / What’s a gear? / Abort! Abort Mission! Go!

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

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You go rogue, he’s been authorized to hunt you down and kill you.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF team (Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Simon Pegg returns as Benji) join forces with CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent a disaster of epic proportions. Arms dealer John Lark and a group of terrorists known as the Apostles plan to use three plutonium cores for a simultaneous nuclear attack on the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. When the weapons go missing, Ethan and his crew find themselves in a desperate race against time to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands but Ethan finds himself up against his number one enemy weaselly Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) the man who haunts his dreams and threatens everyone in his orbit, with Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) the target.  He is saved (again!) by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own mission, while the CIA believe he has forged the identity of John Lark to go rogue himself and he is literally believed to be his own worst enemy. Meanwhile, the future of half the planet is at stake …  All is well with the world, we are back under Cruise control. Nobody is who they say they are, but these days, that’s normal. Double negatives, two faces, whatever. There’s not one but four brilliant women – Rebecca Ferguson is back as the cooler than thou MI6 agent who gets to save the Cruiser again and join the team, ad hoc; Michelle Monaghan shows up, most unexpectedly, in a plot that has emotional heft but wears it effortlessly;  Angela Bassett is Erica Sloan, head of the CIA. And Vanessa Kirby is a shiny-eyed thrill seeking go-between who looks delighted with herself.  There’s an addition to the team and a heroic sacrifice.  There are two hand-to-hand combat scenes that are up there with the best of them. There are not two but three street chases – two through Paris, some of the most realistic I’ve seen since The French Connection and then – and then! – there’s a helicopter chase in the Himalayas! What’s the opposite of climbing? Falling? There’s some of that too.  Ethan Hunt is a man tormented and moral and the guy who holds it together. The arrangement of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme by Lorne Balfe is stunning.  I don’t like some of the photography by Rob Hardy but the use of locations including London and Paris is breathtaking. And there’s the cities that are blown up … or not. It’s all written with tongue firmly in cheek until things get down and dirty and serious. Confused? Feverish? Sweaty palms? Well if you want to stay that way and then some you have got to see this. Simply sensational. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Odd Man Out (1947)

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If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell ’em I helped you. Me, Gin Jimmy. But if the police get you, you won’t mention my name, huh?  Johnny McQueen (James Mason) has been in hiding in Kathleen Sullivan’s (Kathleen Ryan) home for the past six months since his escape from prison. He’s the leader of a political group (the Organisation, code for the IRA) that needs funds although his compatriots think he’s not up to the task:  he believes negotiating with the other side might get them further than attacking them.  Nonetheless he takes part in a raid on a bank but it goes wrong and he’s shot as he kills a cashier. Pat (Cyril Cusack) drives off before Johnny can get into the getaway car and the gang are the subject of a manhunt while Johnny is left to struggle on his own relying on help from passing strangers …  R.C. Sheriff adapted F.L. Green’s novel and while it’s not named, this is clearly set in Belfast. Mason is rivetting as the terrorist who’s experiencing his delirious last long night of the soul in a film that is equal parts documentary and pretentious psychological thriller, with wonderfully atmospheric canted angles and shadows from Robert Krasker’s cinematography. The supporting players are largely drawn from the ranks of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – including Robert Beatty, W.G. Fay, Joseph Tomelty, Noel Purcell, Eddie Byrne and Dan O’Herlihy. Albert Sharpe (presumably fresh off Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, where he made his fortune) plays a bus conductor. Robert Newton impresses as the wild philosophising artist painting Johnny. While some exteriors were shot in Belfast it would appear a great many scenes were done in London including a reproduction of the famous Crown Bar, which was actually a set at D&P Studios. A powerful and gripping drama, this remains one of the great British films, an unconventional, potent and poetic treatise on compromise, brutality, daring and death centering on a passive protagonist around whom much of the plot revolves. Out of the ordinary. Directed by Carol Reed. MM #1800.

Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

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Everything on this station is either too old or doesn’t work. And you’re both! Mr Porter (Will Hay) is sent to be the stationmaster of an underused and putatively haunted ramshackle Northern Irish railway station in rural Buggleskelly. His unprofessional colleagues are the elderly deputy master Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the insolent young Albert (Graham Moffatt) who operate a black market in train tickets for food and tell Porter his predecessors were offed by One-Eyed Joe. He plans to upgrade facilities by organising a trip to Connemara – unaware that some of his customers are gunrunners intending to transport weapons into the Irish Free State …  Filled with confusion, misunderstandings, a run-in with terrorists and a disappearing train, this is a terrifically realised comedy with Hay and his co-stars performing perfectly in roles that would later inspire Dad’s Army. Written by J.O.C. Orton, Marriott Edgar and Val Guest and based on a story by Frank Launder, this was directed by Marcel Varnel and remains Hay’s most acclaimed work.  It’s a minor British genre classic filled with gags galore – there’s even a donnybrook in a pub!

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

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– Why are you chasing me? – Why are you running? – Cause you’re chasing me, man! When his longtime partner on the force Jimmy Hart (Michael Green) is killed, reckless U.S. Secret Service agent and counterfeiting specialist Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) vows revenge, setting out to nab dangerous counterfeiter and artist Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Partnered with the seemingly straight-arrow John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance sets up a scheme to entrap Masters, resulting in the accidental death of an undercover officer. As Chance’s desire for justice becomes an obsession, Vukovich questions the lawless methods he employs:  Chance is ‘sextorting’ Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), promising her her freedom in exchange for information and his dangerous methods include landing Masters’ flunky Carl Cody (John Turturro) behind bars which triggers a series of violent events … Directed by William Friedkin, this feels a lot like a feature-length episode of Miami Vice with added vicious. It starts in quite an extraordinary fashion – a mad mullah swearing to destroy civilisation on the roof of a building – which somehow makes it very contemporary (albeit he’s not taking anyone with him). Based on Gerald Petievich’s autobiographical work and adapted by him with Friedkin, this holds up surprisingly well but there isn’t a single character with whom you can empathise:  they are all singularly sleazy. Luminously shot by Robby Muller, this is a burnished LA, all sunsets and cement and chrome, with corruption a thread running through everything and a stunning car chase that’ll have you clutching the arms of your chair. It’s surprisingly full-frontal in its sex scenes and scored by Wang Chung. Now that’s not a sentence you read every day. This swirls around in the brain long after the last, very unusual shot happens at the tail end of the credits:  Petersen’s face.