Long Shot (2019)

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I look like Cap’n Crunch’s Grindr date! Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) is a daring if shambling journalist favouring the Democrats who has a knack for getting into trouble. We meet him infiltrating a White Power group where he gets identified as a Jewish leftwing writer and he jumps out a first-floor window to escape their wrath halfway through getting a Swastika tattoo. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is one of the most influential women in the world – the US Secretary of State, a smart, sophisticated and accomplished politician who needs to up her ratings to succeed her boss, TV star President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk). Her polling improves every time she’s photographed with the goofy Canadian Prime Minister (Alexander Skarsgard) as she’s counselled to do at every opportunity by her advisor Maggie (June Diane Raphael). When Fred unexpectedly runs into Charlotte at a party his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr) takes him to after he’s left his Brooklyn alt-weekly following a takeover by the repulsive mogul Parker Wembly (Andy Serkis), he finds himself in the company of his former baby sitter and childhood crush. When Charlotte decides to make a run for the presidency she hires Fred as her speechwriter to up the funny factor – much to the dismay of her entourage as she’s embarking on a world tour to persuade leaders to sign up to her programme to save The Bees, The Trees and The Seas and he joins them on the road …  I’m a racist. You’re a Republican. I don’t know what is wrong with me. As a product of the adolescent house of Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg you might think this had a gross out element and it does – any film that could have its leading man ultimately labelled The Come Guy has taken a turn in that direction (hence the title). But it’s the getting there that is astonishingly well put together. The stereotypes here are all too recognisable: the woman who can handle herself, and the man who … handles himself in a very particular way; the WASPy politician who has to deal with a doofus Commander in Chief who himself takes his cues from his TV show as the US President (Odenkirk is very good) along with a toothy Canadian jerk PM (Skarsgard sportingly sports buck teeth) similarly looking for a viable political romance, not to mention the hourly misogyny dealt her by an astonishingly sexist TV channel;  the shabbily dressed leftwing Jewish journo (in another time he’d have been part of the counterculture) who learns the hard way that maturing requires a deal of compromise which he only realises when his best friend admits he’s not just a Republican – but a Christian to boot – and then has the lightbulb moment that he is in his own way a racist and a sexist, everything he despises. Therefore beneath this very funny, role-reversing political comedy about two people who want the impossible – a relationship of equals – is a plea to see things from the other side’s point of view.  He needs to grow up, she needs to be reminded of the passionate truth-teller she used to be so they both teach each other valuable lessons. The big political crisis is solved after Fred has given Charlotte her first taste of MDMA (she thinks it’s called The Molly) so that a hostage-taking disaster is averted when she’s off her skull. This is very much of its time, the potshots are relevant and smart if obvious, the sex scenes are hilarious (she has a better time, quicker, and apologises, just like a guy), and the timing is exquisite. And no, it’s not the intellectual wordfest of The West Wing nor does it attempt the kind of fireworks we might wish for from the classic Thirties screwballs but it has its own rhythm and nuance with flawless performances even if the satire isn’t as up to the second as we require in the Twitterverse. There is, though, a teal rain jacket and those Game of Thrones references. Principally it works because of its humanity but it also ploughs a furrow of Nineties nostalgia – bonding over Roxette and Boyz II Men – as well as boasting an environmental message and emitting a howl against media conglomerates and rightwing hatemongers. At its centre is a couple trying to make things work while working together in a horribly public situation with the politics regularly giving way to charming encounters where the stars play against type. That’s clever screenwriting, by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Deftly directed by Jonathan Levine, this epitomises all that is right, left and wrong about the American political scene with a hugely optimistic message at its core about the State of the Union. Highly entertaining with an awesome Theron taking charge. We totally almost just died

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The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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A piece of advice: always be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.  Retired elusive ex-CIA operative, widower Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), is whiling away his time driving a taxi and delivering vigilante justice on behalf of neighbours and customers in Boston. However his past cuts close to home when thugs kill Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) – his best friend and former colleague. Now out for revenge, McCall has to take on a crew of highly trained assassins who’ll stop at nothing to destroy him and he suspects their leader is a former colleague…  There are no good or bad people any more. No enemies. Just unfortunates. Per the law of diminishing returns, the more of these actioners Washington makes the less effective he becomes as a leading man, doesn’t he? In the first of these films, adapted from the Edward Woodward TV series, he was outshone by the astonishing Marton Csokas, who was the villain par excellence, albeit for obvious reasons he’s not back here. McCall is still working out his grief by helping out anyone he can like some kind of Fury or ninja empath. You’ll spot the troublemaker a mile off and the final shootout is inevitable and tedious. Director Antoine Fuqua has now made sadism a part of his aesthetic brand without any especially redeeming features other than the resolution of an underdeveloped subplot – care home resident Orson Bean trying to find a painting stolen from his family by the Nazis, a line of narrative mirrored in the aspiring artist who McCall is trying to direct back to the straight and narrow starting with remaking a piece of Islamic street art. Written by Richard Wenk. You died

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

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Do these animals deserve the same protection given to other species? Or should they just be left to die?  Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) rescue the remaining dinosaurs on Isla Nublar off Costa Rica following the volcanic eruption that is about to destroy the Jurassic World theme park.  They and their vet pals smuggle themselves into the transport led by mercenary Ken Wheatley  (Ted Levine) bringing everything to the Lockwood mansion where Hammond’s successor Lockwood (James Cromwell) is dying and unaware of the unfolding plot (lucky him). His granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) overhears company exec Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) with mad scientist Henry Wu ( BD Wong) and their plan to auction the dinosaurs. While Owen tracks down Blue, his lead raptor, they encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to disrupt the ecology of the entire planet… Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur? First time you see them, it’s like… a miracle. You read about them in books, you see the bones in museums but you don’t really… believe it. They’re like myths. And then you see… the first one aliveDerek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow return as the screenwriters working from Michael Crichton’s original characters and this is the fifth Jurassic film and the second in the proposed Jurassic World trilogy which seems to be about a kind of co-species Future Shock. Howard has lost the high heels. There’s an underwritten thread about the need for a mother and the dangers of cloning. Most of it takes place in the expanding Lockwood mansion which renders it Night of the Museum-ish. The bad guys get … eaten, quite frankly. And there’s an ending out of E.T. Thankfully Jeff Goldblum returns in a cameo as the chaos theorist, appearing before a Senate Committee. There are thrills and spills in the beginning but it’s a tale of sound and fury signifying a whole lot of nothing, bar a few nice images that Spielberg spawned 25 years ago, if you ask me. Yawn. Directed by J.A. Bayona.  How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction.  One can but hope.

The French Connection (1971)

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You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie? When wealthy Marseilles heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) has an undercover cop murdered by hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) he reveals his plans to smuggle $32 million worth of pure heroin into the United States by hiding it in the car of his friend, French TV personality Henri Devereaux, who is traveling to New York by ship. In NYC narcotics detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) are on undercover stakeout in Brooklyn. After seeing a drug transaction take place in a bar, Cloudy goes in to make an arrest. After a short pursuit, the detectives interrogate the man, who reveals his drug connection and the biggest drug bust in American history looms … All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!  What an extraordinary film this is:  a display of a singular, muscular, arresting, narrative vision with masterful control and seemingly effortless storytelling. It’s a version of a true early 1960s crime but bears none of the burdens of historicism. The shifting camerawork, changing locales, tone-perfect performances and the obsessive pursuit of an imperturbable French crime kingpin chime perfectly with director William Friedkin’s realistic style. The chase involving the 1971 Pontiac Le Mans and the elevated train is one of the most famous action scenes in film history, undercranked by the ingenious cinematographer Owen Roizman to make everything look faster. Apparently, Friedkin was goaded into doing it by Howard Hawks, who said, Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.  Hackman is peerless as the alcoholic bigot with a bee in his bonnet but Rey and Scheider are fantastic too and Tony Lo Bianco as Sal, the NYC connection, gets a great, physical showcase. The jagged jazz score by the preternaturally gifted Don Ellis is one of the great film soundtracks and Jimmy Webb wrote an original song performed by The Three Degrees at the Copacabana. A breathtaking film, complex, violent and well-managed, a specific articulation of the urban landscape told in an economical 99 minutes, it won a slew of Oscars – for editor Gerald B. Greenberg, Hackman’s performance, Best Film, Best Director and writer Ernest Tidyman who adapted the book by Robin Moore. Stunning. That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I’m gonna get him

 

First Man (2018)

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You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But, space exploration changes your perception. Following the death of his daughter, pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to train as an astronaut and participate in the Project Gemini space program, NASA’s project to put a man on the moon by the end of the Sixties. From 1961 through the Apollo 11 landing of July 1969,  details of the different phases of the mission and their effects are dramatised involving his co-pilots and his family … I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven’t been able to until now. Josh Singer adapted James R. Hansen’s biographical book about the man who took a step into the future and history, all at once. It reunites the LA LA Land dream team, Gosling and auteur Damien Chazelle, and the theme is announced in an early line of dialogue about gaining a different perspective on things. What’s wonderful about this – in the true sense, exhibiting wonder – is that it bridges the chasm between inner (human) and outer space:  this is a story of scale and it offers man-size thrills. Armstrong is no less an enigma here than elsewhere but the link between his tiny daughter’s death from a brain tumour and what he needs to do to come to terms with it is the unique narrative trope that humanises him and gives the filmmakers those private moments that enable us to have a sympathetic insight:  when he’s working out his engineering problems, he’s also writing up medical notes on little Karen’s progress;  after her funeral he pulls the curtains on his study and sits down to cry, alone, at the same desk where he charted her reaction to treatment. This is a portrait of a very private man whose profound sense of loss actually untethers him. The payoff and the personal clarification – and perhaps fulfillment, or even annihilation – because Armstrong’s characterisation is a masterclass in avoidance and obfuscation – is finally achieved when he goes on that moonwalk and leaves something of Karen on the surface of the mysterious object that he watches each night, from earth. In between there are missions and experiments and deaths, terrible deaths. Crashing into buildings in fog. Burning alive. As Armstrong points out, better to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there. And it all takes place against a febrile political background and rivalry with the Soviet Union. What’s radical about this is how lo-fi the technology is – and if you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll know how everything seems to be made from balsa wood and tin foil, something that Janet points out to Armstrong’s platitudinising boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler):  You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  Indeed, one on-board problem is solved with a Swiss Army knife. Foy offers heat where Gosling gives us cool; together their expressivity makes a whole person and dramatises the emotion inherent in such a dangerous pursuit. She has a new baby to care for;  when he is in crisis he is visited by memories of his daughter, his hands running through her hair. The other astronauts are a variable bunch and it’s Ed White (Jason Clarke) to whom Armstrong finally mentions his dead daughter, years after they’ve first met;  and it’s the fairly noxious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whom he advises to be more diplomatic who winds up accompanying him on the greatest journey of them all. This is brilliantly told, from the point of view of the only man who could have explained, but didn’t. The pictures from the space craft are small, the size he would have seen. Expressions are minimal. The risk is exceptional. The awe in the final section is everything. These men truly walked with death. But there could only ever be one man to do it first and it’s a staggering personal expression of earthbound grief, finally freed. This is a film of feeling. Watch. And wonder.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

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Are you sure I don’t look like a dick?  With their headquarters destroyed by missile strikes launched by power-crazed international drug dealer Poppy (Julianne Moore) and the world held hostage, members of Kingsman find new allies when they discover a spy organization in the United States known as Statesman. They’ve been holding a lepidopterist (Colin Firth returns as Harry) in their Kentucky distillery (a cover) since he got shot in the head a year previously and appears to be suffering from retrograde amnesia. He thinks he’s a butterfly collector and has no recollection whatsoever of being a spy. In an adventure that tests their strength and wits, the elite secret agents from both sides of the pond band together to battle Poppy and save the day, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy (Taron Egerton) … I’ve never considered genocide especially ladylike. With its retro stylings (London gentleman vs. Fifties-obsessed villainness), drink vs drugs, its nod to Michael Caine’s heyday (those spex), cute dogs, a meet-the-parents scenario, bombs and ultra-violence there’s something for everybody in this comic book sequel. Channing Tatum joins in the fun as the cowboy on a mission, with Jeff Bridges heading up the allied US spy gang and Mark Strong back as Merlin accompanying Egerton (with that awful white-Londoner-doing-black-argot shtick that is SO irritating) doing the superspy thang. Then there’s Poppy’s predilection for human burgers and kidnapping celebrity musicians. It’s cheeky, rude and fun. Somewhat. Not to throw rain on the parade, it’s a shame that writers of such creativity as Jane Goldman and (director) Matthew Vaughn don’t do something properly challenging instead of rehashing this nonsense. That’s two and quarter hours of my life gone in an exhausting tribute to special effects and let’s face it, this isn’t Lawrence of Arabia. Sigh. Hey, hey, Elton. Language. Okay, well, as fabulous as your catalogue is, I think I want to hear some Gershwin

The Talk of the Town (1942)

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Stop saying “Leopold” like that, tenderly. It sounds funny. You can’t do it with a name like Leopold. Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant), who was wrongfully convicted of arson an an assumed murderer, manages to escape from prison in New England. On the lam, he finds Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), an old schoolfriend for whom he harbours a secret love. Nora believes in Dilg’s innocence and lets him pose as her landscaper; meanwhile, renowned Harvard Professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman), a legal expert, has just begun renting a room in Nora’s home. Lightcap also has eyes for Nora, leading to a series of comic misadventures as the police close in … With a screenplay by Sidney Buchman, Irwin Shaw and Dale Van Every, from a story by Sidney Harmon, this George Stevens production oozes classic Hollywood and it powers the stars with the sheer driving wit of the dialogue. Arthur is particularly dazzling in this lesser known screwball with a political text, which is a hoot from start to finish as the threesome battle for each other’s attention and affections. With these indoor habits of yours, you’ve got the complexion of a gravel pit

Geostorm (2017)

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I worked on this day in and day out, week after week, for years. What did they do? They turned it into a gun.  A few years after 2019 following an unprecedented series of natural disasters that threatened the planet, the world’s leaders’ intricate network of satellites to control the global climate and keep everyone safe is acting strangely.  Dutch Boy’s inventor Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is stroppy and a Senate Committee takes him off his own project and installs his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) in his place. But now, something has gone wrong: the system built to protect Earth is attacking it, and it becomes a race against the clock to uncover the real threat before a worldwide geostorm wipes out everything and everyone along with it. Jake has to go to back to outer space and Dutch Boy to try and suss out what’s gone wrong and finds himself in a political web with devastating outcomes as the machine designed to protect Planet Earth has become weaponised to destroy it and Max is the only person he can trust to get the POTUS to help as there’s a traitor in the crew … I don’t know about you but I’ve spent the last three weeks baking and I don’t mean cookie dough. Three months ago I was snowbound for a week and three months before that a huge storm nearly blew my house away. So even a trashy eco-disaster thriller with shonky FX, sibling rivalry, a barely-there political conspiracy and slim father-daughter story arc, compounded by some of the worst acting on the planet (take a bow, Mr Sturgess!) is somehow comforting in an era when some seriously smart people are arguing against climate change. Is it me?! Thank goodness the great Abbie Cornish is around to help save the world. Co-written by Paul Guyot with producer/director Dean Devlin. Batten down the hatches! And get me some ice…

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. 

Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.