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Posts Tagged ‘gratuitous nudity’

It is, as I have observed in the past, often difficult to ensure a new movie gets enough publicity to guarantee its success, even if you are a talented director and you have the resources of a major studio backing you up. It helps to have some kind of unique angle that jaded movie critics and other journalist can latch onto and discuss in their initial reviews of the film. Well, the good news for the makers of Outlaw King (presented on screen as Outlaw/King, which I’m not sure is necessarily a better title), an aspiring historical epic currently appearing at both a cinema and on a major streaming service near you, is that the forces of the media do seem to have found something in this film to get their teeth into. The bad news is that the item in question is star Chris Pine’s winky, which makes an appearance when the actor goes skinny-dipping at one point. The winky is ‘dazzling’, in the words of one usually reputable website, and ‘the belle of the ball’ according to Vanity Fair (a curious choice of metaphor to say the least).

I would imagine that all these winky-focused reviews are not what the makers of Outlaw King anticipated when they released their film into the world, for this shows every sign of being a seriously-intentioned costume drama, directed by David Mackenzie (who in the past has made films as diverse as the laboriously weird Perfect Sense and the rather good neo-western Hell or High Water). Things get underway and we find ourselves in Scotland in the early 14th century, where bad King Edward of England (Stephen Dillane) has seized control of the country after a lengthy struggle with the rebel leader William Wallace. Now all the local nobility are being forced to swear loyalty to Edward, amongst them dour, brooding, well-endowed claimant to the throne Robert the Bruce (Pine). Just to show there are no hard feelings, the King marries his god-daughter Elizabeth (the fabulous Florence Pugh) off to the Bruce.

An uneasy peace persists for a bit, but when Wallace is finally apprehended and bits of him are posted all over Scotland to deter other insurrectionists, the country is in uproar. Robert the Bruce decides that it is time for him, as an honourable Scotsman, to stand up and do the right thing. In this case the right thing is for him to break his promise to Edward, murder his rival claimant to the throne, and have himself declared King of Scots by the local church dignitaries. King Edward is as cross as two sticks at this act of treachery and dispatches an army under the command of his son (Billy Howle) to sort the situation out. Soon enough Robert the Bruce and his band of followers are forced into hiding, desperately trying to rally support for their dream of Scottish independence (hey, the more things change…), while the new king’s wife and daughter find themselves caught in the path of the advancing English army.

This, you would have thought, would be a good place for the scene where Robert the Bruce learns the value of persistence and determination from watching a spider trying to spin its web under difficult circumstances. I would hazard a guess that this is the one and only thing most people outside Scotland know about Robert the Bruce, and yet while the story is alluded to (very obliquely) it doesn’t make it into the film. This is not the only interesting omission from Outlaw King: filmed, but not included in the final version, was an encounter between Robert and William Wallace.

I find this rather significant, because Outlaw King is clearly pitching itself very much as a film in the vein of Braveheart (Bravewinky, perhaps), with some of the same historical figures appearing in it. I might even go so far to say that this is the work of people who liked Braveheart so much they decided to make their own version (which is what this is). Obviously comparisons are going to be made, and actually having Wallace show up in the movie would only add to this.

Nevertheless, Outlaw King‘s mixture of gritty mediaeval detail and gory battlefield violence (the ‘arterial splatter’ CGI function gets a lot of use) can’t help feeling a bit familiar, and there are a lot of faces in the supporting cast who are exactly the kind of actor you would expect to find in this kind of film – James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Clive Russell. That said, some younger faces are more prominent – as well as Pugh and Howle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is second-billed as one of Robert the Bruce’s more homicidally zealous followers. Most of the performances are pretty solid, although the actors are somewhat hindered by the fact that they are essentially playing stock types – the ambitious young man chafing for recognition from his father, the young woman forced into an arranged marriage who slowly finds her feelings for her husband deepening, and so on.

It must be said that Florence Pugh is customarily excellent in this film: she is one major role away from global stardom, I would suggest. That said, she is excellent in a rather underwritten and unrewarding part. Her character’s role in the film feels rather like an afterthought – she’s there not because it’s particularly important to the plot (she isn’t), but because it seems to be received dogma that you can’t do a big movie like this one without at least one significant female character.

If we’re going to talk about the acting in this film, however, we should probably spend some time considering Chris Pine’s contribution. Now, regular readers may know that I am far from an unconditional fan of this particular actor – I believe in the past I may have said that on those occasions when I enjoyed a Pine movie, it’s been despite rather than because of his presence. So I may be a little biased. However, the problem here is that Robert the Bruce is a dour, internal sort of character, who spends a lot of the film brooding (he’s also arguably an ambiguous and compromised figure, although the script works hard to finesse the murder of John Comyn into an act of self-defence). Chris Pine is not a natural brooder. He is a smirker, a swaggerer, a schmoozer, and a wise-cracker. Rough-hewn Scottish monarchy is well outside his comfort zone and his performance is really only functional, which means there is an absence at the heart of the film.

Dedicated Pine watchers may feel there is an absence in other ways as well. Yes, I think the time has come when we must address the issue of Chris Pine’s winky (and those are words I never thought I’d type). Well, the first thing I must say is that the prominence of Pine’s masculine appendage seems to have been rather overstated by excitable hacks. The appearance of the winky definitely falls into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category, to say nothing of the fact it only appears in long shot. I would also suggest that this whole winky-related fuss only serves to highlight a rather quaint double standard in how we treat screen nudity. Florence Pugh’s exposed knockers get much more screen time than the Pine winky, but no-one’s talking about them at all – and, in the age of the Unique Moment, I imagine I would get flayed alive if I even mentioned in this review the fact that they look superb. Yet someone can go on about the ‘dazzling’ winky and the response only seems to be a mixture of amusement and bemusement.

With the Bruce himself not a particularly compelling character, and the plot being a fairly uninspired mixture of action sequences and political wrangling, the result is that Outlaw King is just not that gripping as a piece of drama. It looks great, with all the usual Scottish scenery, armies of extras, and some deft special effects. Mackenzie does a slightly showy-offy very long take at the start of the film, but on the whole he marshals the film very competently, and the climax – a recreation of the battle of Loudon Hill – is genuinely very good, really giving you something of the sense of what it was like to be a peasant infantryman facing a cavalry charge by armoured knights.

There are many good things about Outlaw King, and it passes the time fairly agreeably (I imagine many people may have issues with the violence and gore that punctuate the movie, however). I am also fully aware that many people like Chris Pine and this kind of mud-and-chainmail movie rather more than I do, so I expect the film will probably be quite successful. Nevertheless, I think it wears its influences a bit too openly, and is much more impressive in terms of its production values than its actual storytelling.

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Sigh. Coming up with original and engaging opening paragraphs isn’t easy, you know, and I was all set to go with a rumination on how hard it was to find a cinema showing Andrew Niccol’s Anon, which would have led into a by-the-by mention of the fact that all the multiplexes are currently stuffed with films about Josh Brolin beating up superheroes. In my neck of the woods, Anon has only managed to land a very low-profile release at the Curzon, Oxford’s most stylish but least-frequented cinema. Seriously, this is the second time I’ve been there and literally had the auditorium to myself. The whole cinema is like a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere; I can’t help feeling sorry for them, because it’s quite a beautiful cinema which so often seems empty.

Anyway, you’ll be spared all that. My initial introduction to Anon basically consisted of finding a photo of it online along with a brief description. Upon cracking open Wikipedia to do some proper post-screening pre-review research, I discovered that this is yet another example of a movie which has been grabbed by Netflix and is available to view online for rather less than the price of a ticket to the Curzon. So the message, rather than being that sometimes the universe tries to stop you from going to a movie for very sound reasons, is instead that you should always do at least a little research. As it is, this is a film about the merits of obscurity which may well find itself ending up enjoying them more than the producers would like.

 

Hey ho. In Anon, Clive Owen plays police detective Sal Frieland, who has an American name but a London accent; the movie is set in a sort of mildly dystopian brutalist future archetypal City, so you can forgive the accents being a bit all over the place there. As Frieland walks down the street to work, we see the world from his point of view, with constant real-time annotations telling him the make and model of every passing car, the history of the buildings, and the names, ages and occupations of every passing person.

Yup, we are in gimmicky sci-fi territory here, and the main conceit of the movie is that everyone has had the perception centres of their brains hooked up to Google and Wikipedia (well, effectively: the movie is brand-name free) and their memories connected to YouTube, so they have a digital record of their experiences which can be accessed by the authorities, shared with friends and family, and so on. Being able to download a suspect’s memory, or indeed that of a victim, makes being a detective really easy, and yet Owen still spends most of the movie with the haunted expression of a man once talked of as a future Bond who now finds himself north of fifty and trapped in a string of duff genre movies. So it goes, old boy, so it goes.

However, a string of murders have the cops worried, for the killer has the ability to mask their presence and avoid being recorded by the system: they also appear to have the power to delete themselves from people’s digital memory recordings. Soon enough Sal is on the case, his prime suspect being a nameless young woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose business is hacking people’s memories and editing out things they’d rather other people didn’t learn about. Soon he begins to wonder – is the interest of his superiors because of the killings she has supposedly committed, or because her special skills undermine the whole basis of the way society is currently organised?

What can I say: I have a lot of time for Clive Owen, and I’m always on the look-out for a genuinely smart science fiction film, but Anon is not the latter and doesn’t really do the former many favours, I fear. Now, given the recent kerfuffle about data harvesting by Facebook and the whole issue of privacy on t’internet, there is clearly an issue here to be explored by the right movie. However, Anon is not it. What Anon is, is a rather pedestrian mash-up of Minority Report, Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic, and various other undistinguished sci-fi films that nobody remembers with any great fondness.

This is the kind of film which touches on what it considers to be Big Important Issues, but doesn’t actually do anything with them. There’s some stuff about memory, and some stuff about the nature of truth, and some interesting dialogue about the difference between privacy and secrecy, but it doesn’t tackle these things in anything approaching a systematic way. It doesn’t discuss ideas, it ponders and pronounces on them, rarely saying anything especially memorable. There’s quite a good sequence exploring what a potentially lethal enemy someone who can hack and manipulate your perceptions would make, but once again it’s only briefly touched on (and one has to wonder why Owen doesn’t just disconnect his brain’s wi-fi – presumably this is illegal).

I imagine we are supposed to cut the various implausibilities of Anon‘s premise some slack, given that this is supposed to be a serious film dealing with important contemporary issues in a metaphorical manner. I don’t think the film does nearly enough to earn this. Nor do its attempts at topicality excuse several rather implausible plot points, or the fact that you just stop caring about who did the murders well before the end and just want them to get on with the climax of the movie. Plus, I notice yet again that this is one of those serious SF movies for intelligent adults where nearly all the significant female characters are required to perform a gratuitous nude scene. Having said that, the balance is possibly redressed a little by a scene in which Clive Owen humps someone while still wearing his vest: calm yourselves, ladies.

Anon looks good but the story is too sluggish and over-familiar for the film to really come to life; there is the odd decent moment and Owen and Seyfried are always kind of watchable, but it never grips as a thriller and it’s not nearly as profound or original as it thinks it is. Yet another of those films that basically resembles a long episode of Black Mirror but without the wit, focus, or humanity; it also commits the cardinal sin of any movie, especially one in the SF genre, and that is that it’s quite boring. Eminently forgettable, if you can manage it.

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Looking ahead to the biggest films of the summer, it’s a fair bet that the latest iteration of Jurassic Park (which appears to focus on people fleeing from dinosaurs and a volcano) will be somewhere near the top of the list. On board for this latest excursion into peril-based running is one of the original cast, Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as the wacky mathematician. I wonder if there is any correlation between who is fronting a Jurassic Park film and the actual quality of the movie? I always felt that of the original three, the ones with Sam Neill were rather better than the one headed up by Jeff Goldblum (although I suspect Goldblum will be in the heritage cameo slot this year, with Chris Pratt once again doing most of the heavy lifting, heroically speaking).

I mean, I like Jeff Goldblum a lot, and I know that if he’s in a movie then I’m going to enjoy his bits if nothing else. The fact that he seems to be enjoying a bit of a profile spike at the moment (Isle of Dogs, Ragnarok, and the new Jurassic Park) is great. As a movie veteran, he has developed into a great character performer; but looking back at his career one can’t help wondering if he was ever quite cut out to be a leading man in the conventional sense.

Recently making an appearance on the local version of a world-conquering streaming site was John Landis’ 1985 film Into the Night, a black comedy which was really Jeff Goldblum’s first leading role. Exactly what genre (or subgenre) this film belongs to is a curious matter we will return to shortly; suffice to say that it seems to me to be a quintessentially 80s movie.

Goldblum plays Ed Okin, a disaffected executive at an aerospace engineering company in Los Angeles. He is suffering from severe insomnia, which causes his work to suffer, and this in turn results in him discovering his wife is having an affair. Shocked and uncertain, he finds himself driving out to the airport around midnight, perhaps contemplating flying off to parts unknown. He arrives there just in time to meet Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman-on-the-make who’s just returned from Europe. The guy meeting Diana is killed by a quartet of hoodlums of Middle Eastern origin, and they seem intent on taking a similar interest in her. Needless to say she hurls herself into Ed’s car and begs that he drive her out of there.

Ed, naturally, has no idea what’s going on, and just wants to conclude their association and go home (he seems to have been startled out of his ennui),  but – inevitably – events conspire to keep them together. (Plus, every time she says ‘Please stay with me for a little while longer’, he seems just a little too willing to agree.) It turns out that Diana has got herself mixed up in a dodgy deal involving the heritage of the Shah of Iran and some jewel smuggling, and now various heavies of Iranian, French, and British origin are on her tail. Can either of them get through the night in one piece?

Careers go up, careers go down; Goldblum had been appearing in films for over ten years by 1985, and was just on the verge of breaking through to genuine stardom (he appeared in The Fly the following year). Pfeiffer wasn’t quite so well established, being mainly known for Grease 2 and Scarface at the time, but was just beginning the run of movies that would lead to her becoming one of the most successful actresses of the late 80s and 90s. John Landis, on the other hand, had already directed The Blues Brothers, Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but from the mid-80s on he would struggle to consistently find creative or commercial success. You could argue that Into the Night marks the onset of this: Landis’ previous movie, Trading Places, made $90 million; Into the Night made less than eight.

There were quite a few films with a similar theme doing the rounds in the middle 80s. I’ve heard this described as the ‘yuppie nightmare’ or ‘yuppie in peril’ subgenre, but the thing is that this seems mainly used to describe films like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, and Bad Influence, straight thrillers concerning the ‘[insert noun] from hell’ – the one night stand from hell, the room-mate from hell, or whatever. I think that Into the Night represents something a bit odder and more obscure, which I would refer to as ‘yuppie-led-astray’ movies (a different subgenre – or perhaps subsubgenre?). Into the Night came out in early 1985, Scorsese’s After Hours appeared later the same year, and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was released in 1986: all of them concern outwardly successful but quietly unhappy men who find themselves involved in a series of misadventures after encountering a free-spirited young woman.

As Into the Night was the first of these films off the blocks, it can hardly be that people were already sick of the idea when it came out, so its relative lack of success must be due to something else. One of the elements of the film singled out for criticism by directors at the time is the fact that it is stuffed with cameos by Landis’ friends and acquaintances from the film-making world. If you really know your stuff you can spot people like Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Jim Henson, Rick Baker, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Lynn, Amy Heckerling and David Cronenberg, all making small appearances. I’m not sure this is necessarily a huge problem, as it’s only distracting if you have a genuinely encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema – I’m a big fan of Jack Arnold’s films, for example, but I had no idea what he looked like until I found out he’d been in this film.

More of a problem is the sense that the elements of the yuppie-led-astray film are here in embryonic form but haven’t quite fully developed yet. The best of these films have a strong sense of time about them: After Hours takes place in the course of a single night, Something Wild over a single weekend. You would expect Into the Night to follow the same pattern, with the main action of the film all happening in the course of a night and the climax, perhaps, coming at dawn. This is not the case – about two thirds of the way through, a new day dawns, and there’s about ten minutes of plot before the protagonists decide to nap through until the following evening, which is when the rest of it takes place (the conclusion is not great, and the film ambles to a close rather than actually having a strong climax). Maybe they just ran out of money for night shooting; certainly the production values of some parts of this film resemble those of an episode of The A Team or The Rockford Files rather than a genuine movie.

I think it may just be that John Landis wasn’t quite a good enough director to pull off this kind of movie, as they require a level of wit and subtlety that you don’t necessarily associate with this director, except perhaps in American Werewolf. There are some rather embarrassing slapstick hoodlums in this movie, one of whom is played by Landis himself; in one particularly tonally-off moment a gag where they struggle to get through a door, which is not funny, is followed by them pursuing and then murdering a fleeing woman, which would never be funny. There is a definite problem with pervasive misogyny in this movie, I would say: most of the women in it are, if not actually prostitutes or mistresses, then defined by their attractiveness. There’s also a fair degree of gratuitous nudity in it, all female of course.

Even Michelle Pfeiffer is required to get every stitch of kit off for a couple of brief sequences, but she manages to rise above this, not to mention a generally underwritten part, and delivers a convincing and effective performance as a recognisably human character. You can see why she became such a big star. Can the same be said for Jeff Goldblum? Well – here’s the thing about the protagonists of yuppie-led-astray films; they are by nature hapless everymen, audience identification figures plunged into peculiar and unexpected worlds. Goldblum is a fine performer, but he is almost always the quirky one, the slightly off-kilter character. In this film he has to rein all of that in and be the most normal thing in the movie, basically spending nearly two hours reacting to the more eccentric characters around him (and some of them are highly eccentric: David Bowie cameos as an extremely polite moustachioed English hitman). And you can’t help feeling, what a waste of potential. This isn’t to say Goldblum is bad in this film, but you’re just aware he can be much better when he isn’t so badly miscast.

Into the Night is basically one of those odd movies which has a certain kind of curiosity value and passes the time in a not too objectionable manner. The thing is that everyone in it is much better in other, more famous movies; it’s not the director’s best work, either; and this whole style of story is handled much, much better in other movies (my recommendation would be Something Wild, which is darker, stranger, sexier, and more emotionally engaging). Just about worth watching though, particularly if you like Goldblum and Pfeiffer.

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Jennifer Lawrence was as prominent as ever at the Oscars the other night, as befits a star of her calibre and popularity (I can’t remember when they started calling her ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and even if this was originally meant semi-ironically, that doesn’t seem to be the case any more). She wasn’t actually up for a gong this year, and one is tempted to suggest this is mainly because David O Russell didn’t have a film out this year (her last three Academy nods have all come from appearances in Russell movies).

Instead, she was plugging her new movie Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation, I find myself obliged to say), which mainly appeared to involve showing up on a cold London rooftop in a slinky and rather revealing black dress while her male co-stars were decked out in nice warm coats and scarves. Needless to say, t’internet had things to say about this double standard, and most of it was not complimentary. Surprisingly enough, reaction to Red Sparrow itself has been rather more mixed – personally, while I find Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to appear in that dress to be fairly unremarkable, I find her decision to appear in Red Sparrow to be borderline baffling.

The film is mostly set in present-day Russia and eastern Europe, not that this is immediately apparent. Lawrence plays Dominika, a nice young ballerina whose career comes to an end after a gruesome work-related injury nearly results in one of her legs coming off. Things look bleak for her and her poorly mum, until her sinister uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the security services, appears with an offer: if she exploits her natural charms to get close to a person of interest, he will see she and her mum are looked after.

Well, naturally things do not go quite according to plan (or do they…?) and Dominika is presented with a choice of options: be shot in the head and dumped in the river as a witness to a secret operation, or go to a special training school and become a ‘sparrow’, a highly-trained specialist spy-stroke-prostitute (and you can probably guess what gets stroked the most). After due consideration of the alternatives, Dominika agrees to enrol in what even she describes as ‘whore school’.

Intercut with all this is the marginally more conventional tale of rugged CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – do not let the fact his name means ‘ours’ in Russian, as any fule who have seen From Russia With Love kno, lead you to expect a twist – who is running a top-level mole inside Russian security. He knows who the mole is. The Russians know he knows who the mole is. He knows the Russians know he knows who the mole is. Rather than let this go on indefinitely, sinister uncle Ivan decides to send in Dominika to make contact (hem-hem) with Nash and persuade him to reveal who the traitor is. But will she stay loyal to the motherland? Could she in fact be playing a game of her own?

I suppose the first thing one has to say about Red Sparrow is to question the extent to which it is in good taste to make blockbuster entertainment about Russian espionage activities at the moment. Whether you think that Russian involvement in western politics and society is a serious problem (as I write this the UK news is full of what appears to be an attempted assassination on a former Russian national which took place on British soil, to say nothing of the protracted shenanigans in which President Man-Baby finds himself embroiled), or that the Russian government is an essentially harmless paper tiger, this kind of depiction is unlikely to move the world closer to unity and peace. ‘Your body belongs to the state!’ snaps the commandant of sparrow school, played with inimitable menace by Charlotte Rampling, who later goes on to announce ‘It is time for Russia to take its place at the head of other nations’. Russia is shown, in short, as being an almost cartoonishly awful and sinister place.

However, and somewhat startlingly, this doesn’t even begin to deal with all the most problematic elements of Red Sparrow. All right, films are in production for a long time – years, in the case of one like this – and I’m sure no-one involved had any more inkling that the Post-Weinstein Moment was on its way than the rest of us. But it remains the case that this film feels almost uncannily, supernaturally misjudged in its sexual politics, at the moment. We’re no more than twenty-five minutes in before the first time Jennifer Lawrence is forced to undress, and this is followed by a sequence which plays almost like a reconstruction of certain of the allegations that have been doing the rounds, as a rich and powerful man engages in a violent sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman in a hotel bedroom.

This isn’t the only recent film to add a little dash of this sort of thing – I have occasionally complained about Hollywood’s blase attitude to misogynistic violence in mainstream thrillers in the past – but what makes Red Sparrow different is that, ever since the first trailer, its advertising and marketing has focused solely on the fact that this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and she is a very comely young woman. The whole subtext of the trailers could really be summed up as ‘Jennifer Lawrence as a sexy spy – cor! I mean – COORRRR!!!’ And the film is really no different – it really does feel like the sine qua non of the film is to show Lawrence in various alluring states of undress, and engaging in various provocative activities. It’s overwhelmingly prurient and actually rather repugnant: I emerged from the theatre feeling like I wanted to be hosed down with sheep dip, the film is that icky.

So, as I say, you really have to wonder what possessed as sharp a customer as Lawrence to make a film where she is depicted almost entirely as a sexually-objectified victim, where her physicality seems to have been at least as important as her acting ability. With regard to rooftopdressgate, Lawrence’s response was that she liked the dress, thought she looked good in it, and it’s nobody else’s damn business what she chooses to wear. Which I suppose is good strong feminist stuff, from a certain angle at least. And I expect one could make a similar defence of her appearance in the movie – it’s her career, after all, and if she wants to receive a massive cheque for doing gratuitous nude scenes in tacky sex-thrillers then that’s nobody’s business but hers. She owes no responsibility to anyone else.

Well, therein hangs the question, of course: Lawrence is free to do whatever she wants, and is unlikely to be casually exploited, no matter what happens. Other young women who are not influential celebrities with an estimated net worth of £84 million may find themselves in a different situation, and the issue is the extent to which Lawrence is personally responsible for the state of the world.  It’s a big one, of course, and probably too big to be properly discussed here, but I will just say this: Lawrence’s talent and power means she is never going to be short of films to appear in, so I don’t see why she felt it necessary to appear in this particular one, given it is so tawdry and unpleasant.

The thing is that once you get past the objectionable sexual politics of Red Sparrow, all you are actually left with is a turgid and overlong spy thriller. There are plenty of twisty-turny bits along the way, but it all feels curiously inert and is never especially engaging. For most of the film, the agendas and goals of the different characters remain enigmatic and shrouded in mystery: the problem is that this doesn’t engage or intrigue the viewer very much, you just don’t care, for some reason. This is despite a couple of pretty decent performances from Jeremy Irons (who recently, and with no discernible sense of irony, announced in a TV interview that actors shouldn’t pocket a big cheque if it means appearing in rubbish) and Schoenaerts.

Of course, even when it’s not being leery and exploitative, the film still often finds time to be graphically, sadistically violent – and there are even bits where it manages to be leery and sadistic at the same time: oh, look, here’s Lawrence having her clothes cut off preparatory to torture! Here she is actually being tortured! Here’s someone else being flayed alive!

Normally I would say all the violence was over-the-top, but in Red Sparrow‘s case it suits the tone of the rest of the movie all too well; that’s really the problem. And, as I’ve said (possibly at too great a length: what can I say, I’m a Guardian reader), this film does have more serious issues going on. It is competently made, up to a point – this is almost a problem in itself, as it gives the film a veneer of respectability it really doesn’t deserve – but beneath that surface is something comprehensively misogynistic and deeply objectionable.

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Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

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James Watkins’ Bastille Day opens with as brazen as piece of gratuitous female nudity as you will see in any film this year, proceeds to include as many low-fi foot chases, car chases, punch-ups and gun battles as the plot can contain while remaining even remotely credible, and concludes with its star, Idris Elba, belting out a funky number over the closing titles. There is no great mystery as to what kind of film this is – in fact there is something quite endearing about just how up-front it is about its ambitions. Bastille Day really, really wants to be a Luc Besson movie (with a side order of ‘star vehicle for currently-hot Idris Elba’).

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All the Besson tropes are here: the cheerful purloining of action movie tropes from American cinema, a plot that does the business as long as you don’t look too hard, very decent action sequences, and some rather underwritten female characters. I genuinely thought this was a Besson project while I was watching it, so note-perfect is the imitation of style. But apparently not.

The odd thing is that this is in many ways a British movie trying to copy a French director best known for making films in an American style. As things get under way, we meet American pick-pocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden, who’s British), who spends most of his time ripping off tourists in Paris, where he lives. However, things take a left turn for him when he unwisely steals the bag of a young French woman called Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon, who’s Canadian), coerced into planting a bomb by her dodgy boyfriend, rather against her better judgement.

Well, the bomb goes off, but luckily neither Mason nor Zoe are injured. However, Mason is now being hunted by the authorities as a suspected terrorist, and the people who made the bomb would quite like a word with Zoe, too. As luck would have it, the CIA’s Paris section have a head start on finding Mason, and the case is assigned to agent Briar (Elba, who’s also British). Elba is introduced in one of those scenes where his weaselly superior tries to drag him over the coals for being an undisciplined maverick, but he’s such a badass dude that he reduces his boss to an impotent fury with a few cool putdowns. Honestly, watching this scene was like seeing an old friend again – I wanted to stand up in the cinema and give it a big hug.

Anyway, Briar’s bull-at-a-gate approach to intelligence work means that ten minutes after his CIA supervisor (Kelly Reilly, who’s also British) instructs him to discreetly locate and detain Mason, he is chasing him over the rooftops of Paris while waving a gun. Needless to say, this is Elba’s movie not Madden’s, so he catches him and the two can get to work on their buddy-movie rapport (not to mention progressing the plot). It transpires that dark forces are at work seeking to foment panic and chaos in the French capital ahead of the Bastille Day parade, but not all is quite as it appears to be…

First things first: going ahead and releasing a movie about terrorist attacks in Paris is a ballsy choice at the moment, although my understanding is that this movie was shot in 2014, when the subject matter must have seemed slightly less provocative. This is especially the case given that Bastille Day is very definitely pitched at the no-brainer end of the market – this is not a film of big ideas, intended to make one reconsider the impact of terrorism on modern society or the role of the state in maintaining civil order. This is a film about Idris Elba kicking people in.

That said, Bastille Day manages to get away with it, just – it certainly doesn’t come across as anything like as ugly and reprehensible as London Has Fallen, for instance – partly because Elba comes across as less of a homicidal maniac than Gerard Butler, and partly because it quickly becomes fairly clear that the film isn’t actually about ‘terrorism’, and the bad guys aren’t radicalised Muslims, but a set of stock figures who should be quite familiar to anyone who’s watched more than a handful of action movies in the last twenty years.

The film’s attempts at being contemporary are pretty much restricted to including something rather like the Occupy movement, which surely barely counts as topical any more anyway. Still, this isn’t the kind of film you go to for bold new ideas: as I said, you know pretty much from the start more or less how it’s all going to go down – a lot of running around and shouting, a little exposition (hopefully inserted as subtly and painlessly as possible), some snappy banter between our two heroes, and a big gun battle at the end.

Bastille Day provides all these things extremely competently, and Idris Elba carries the film well: although if, as many are suggesting, this is effectively his audition piece, made with an eye to becoming the next James Bond, I’m not sure it quite does the job. He can handle the tough guy stuff very well, but I’m not sure he’s quite smooth enough for Bond (novel though it would be to have Bond himself singing the theme song). Others may disagree. The film does lack a properly strong villain for him to face off against – if this really were a Besson movie, there would be someone like Matt Schulze or Tcheky Karyo having a whale of a time and chewing the scenery, but the bad guys here are extremely anonymous, which may be partly why the climax of the film feels a little underpowered and flat.

I must confess to turning up to Bastille Day with extremely modest expectations, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying the movie as much as I did. This film is not going to rock anyone’s world, or turn anyone involved into a red-hot property, but it ticks nearly every box required of it and manages to generate moments of genuine humour, suspense, and excitement. This is a very competently made mid-budget action movie, nothing more and nothing less. As such it’s exactly the film it wants to be, and well worth seeing if you like that kind of thing.

 

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As readers of the collected reviews will probably have surmised, I am late to the party when it comes to feting Danny Boyle as a film-maker – I can’t remember seeing a film of his that I actually thought was bad, per se, but certainly many of the early ones just strike me as a little bit too smug and glossy. Having said that, I love 28 Days Later, thought Slumdog Millionaire was terrific, and had a lot of time for 127 Hours as well. So I suppose I’ve come around to the view that – certainly of late – Boyle has become a genuine national treasure as a director of real class.

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This is a consensus unlikely to be much damaged by his new film, Trance, unless I miss my guess very badly. In retrospect, this looks and feels very much like a Boyle film from beginning to end, and the story itself contains a few old friends from past projects – violent gangs as antagonists, scene-setting voice-overs, a few other tropes, whistles and bells with the narrative voice – and yet it still manages the neat trick of feeling completely fresh and surprising, thanks to a ferociously clever and convoluted story originated by the less generally well-known writer-director Joe Ahearne (who earned the respect of some of us for his work in Ancient Times on This Life and Ultraviolet). All in all this is a very smart and attractive package.

The film opens by introducing us to junior auctioneer Simon Newton (James McAvoy), who cheerfully explains to us the package of measures in place to stop people nicking expensive paintings when they come up for sale. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the depiction of a well-organised attempt to circumvent these precautions when a famous Goya picture is sold for £25 million. Simon is briefly in charge of taking the threatened picture to safety, but is cornered by lead thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) who relieves him of it and gives him a nasty crack on the head for his trouble. However, when Franck pauses to admire his ill-gotten gains, the picture seems to have vanished into thin air…

When Simon gets out of hospital, he is less than pleased to find his flat and car have both been ransacked, and even less delighted when Franck’s henchmen whisk him off to a secluded location for a fairly intense chat. Simon, it transpires, was in on the robbery from the start, but the disappearing picture was not part of the plan. If he wishes to retain all his body parts in working order, Franck suggests he hands it over right away. But of course, there is a problem – Simon’s bang on the head seems to have left him with amnesia concerning exactly what happened in the aftermath of the robbery, and he’s no clue what happened to the painting. Trimming down the ends of Simon’s fingers does not improve his memory and so the gang resort to different approach – Simon is packed off to a comely hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), with instructions to get his memory restored so everyone can go their separate ways with smiles on their faces . However, Franck and Simon have reckoned without the therapist, who brings a new and unexpected agenda of her own to this already tangled situation.

Trance kicks off like a slick and glossy caper thriller somewhat in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven – the opening sequence, detailing the robbery itself, is brilliantly put together and hugely enjoyable. But as well as showcasing Boyle’s mastery of the medium, this part of the film is surely there to settle the audience, engage them with the film, and – perhaps most importantly – win their trust. This is because there is a moment, not very far into the film, where I sat back and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea which way this story was going to go next. It’s hellishly difficult to fly off the beacon like this and take the audience with you, but Boyle manages it almost effortlessly.

Almost imperceptibly the focus of the film shifts from the problem of finding the missing painting, and it becomes a much darker, more twisted thriller about the relationship between the three lead characters. Not everything is as it has first been presented to us, and the story becomes a matter of digging down through complex layers of deception and confusion to reach the truth. As they do so, the roles of mastermind, manipulatee, and victim shuffle back and forth between the trio: it’s a hell of a conjuring trick, and almost flawlessly executed (I can only think of one possible moment where the film appears to be cheating, and I’d have to see it again to be sure). But you have to keep your wits about you and pay attention if you want to keep up – this is a supremely confident film and not one that make compromises for the sake of the audience.

This extends to some of the elements of violence and gore which punctuate the film – in terms of these alone, Trance must be at the absolute top end of the 15 certificate, and this is before we even get to the sex and nudity. This is the only part of the film about which I have some misgivings, because its sexual politics seem to me to be a little skewed. You could certainly argue that this is, on some level, a story about feminine empowerment, but this does not sit especially easily with a couple of sequences requiring some remarkably graphic nudity from the leading lady (especially considering that nothing really comparable is expected of the two men). These scenes felt to me to have a nasty, leering quality quite at odds with the rest of the film, and while they illustrate both character and plot points, the points in question are hardly essential to the story.

This stuff certainly brings a vaguely ugly quality to a film which otherwise seems intended to be as attractive and bright as possible, even at the expense of some credibility – Trance shows London as a glossy, beautiful playground, where everyone has a giant-sized wall TV, state-of-the-art fitted kitchen, and private pool, and people can routinely afford to send each other iPads in the post rather than one of your actual letters. It is slightly absurd, but at the same time very appealing – and much the same could be said of the convolutions of the plot. Danny Boyle orchestrates the whole thing with seemingly effortless skill, helped by very solid performances from the three stars, all of whom make the most of the ambiguities inherent in the script. Not a film for kids, nor one to be taken too seriously – but as a piece of hugely stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, Trance is almost wholly successful.

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Someone appears to have declared this to be Old Git Action Month, for the ancient stone gods of the genre have risen from their stately thrones and are lumbering about the place making the dull honking noises that was ever their primary mode of communication. First of all we had Arnold Schwarzenegger, not exactly back with a bang in The Last Stand, and, close upon his heels, here comes Sylvester Stallone, starring in Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head: a movie so utterly in thrall to its own genre conventions it practically reviews itself.

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This is a film with a slight problem on the Silly Name front. Stallone plays New Orleans hitman Jimmy Bobo, who is going about his business as usual with his partner (obviously, he has a code of honour, which he appears to have bought pre-owned from a character in a Luc Besson movie). However – and don’t bother to stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the duo find themselves set up while on what appeared to be a routine job, and his partner is offed.

In town to investigate the killings is strait-laced Washington PD detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), whose investigative skills seem to be limited to googling people on his smartphone. Nevertheless, Kwon tracks down Bobo and convinces him that they should team up to find whoever ordered the hit in the first place.

On paper it sounds somewhat complex, and I suppose it is a bit, but what it all boils down to is Kang googling people on his smartphone (seriously, he’s never off the damn thing, and Stallone even mocks him for his dependence on it – I thought this was all building up to a climactic gag where Kang would actually use the phone to kill someone and resolve the plot, but no) so that he and Stallone can drive round there and shoot them (sometimes after roughing them up a bit). It all turns out to be about local civic corruption, but even this plot gets peremptorily switched off so Stallone and featured bad guy Jason Momoa can have a set-piece fight with axes.

Walter Hill has been knocking out movies like this for well over thirty years, and this is hardly one of his better productions. As loud, bloody, extremely macho and formulaic action thrillers go, it’s okay – red-blooded old-school fans of this sort of thing will probably find it passable, but the whole thing stews in its own testosterone to the extent that anyone else will probably find it a bit objectionable.

For example, most of the female characters, and both of the significant ones, have at least one nude scene, usually relatively lengthy. And it’s a bit bemusing that Sung Kang was specifically cast in this movie (replacing Tom Jane) in order to give it ‘wider ethnic appeal’ when the treatment of his character is arguably quite racist: Stallone gets to make numerous cracks, calling him Confucius, Oddjob, Kato, and so on. And quite apart from that, his character is just insipid – he’s not Stallone’s partner, he’s a whiny sidekick who goes on and on about his phone and about how, when all this is over, he’s going to have bring Stallone to justice for being a hitman (no prizes for guessing whether he does or not). He comes across as weak and dorky.

Then again, the film isn’t looking to give anyone equal billing with Stallone, for this is his vehicle. For a pensioner, he looks in frankly alarmingly good shape – he gets a lengthy fight sequence in his pants, which I can’t imagine any other actor of his age agreeing to, and faces off with the half-his-age Jason Momoa quite convincingly. His face appears to be permanently stuck in an expression of hangdog wounded cynicism, and his voice is virtually a gravelly monotone (he can vary the volume but not, apparently, the pitch), but I think this was probably always the case.

The thing about The Last Stand is that at least it has the novelty value of being Arnie’s first starring role in nearly a decade. Stallone’s been plugging away doing this sort of thing almost non-stop since the 80s. There’s a vague attempt to acknowledge Stallone’s back catalogue and screen persona, but he could have made this film twenty years ago with only the tiniest of changes. As a lowest-common-denominator action thriller it is perfectly serviceable, but it’s also thoroughly mediocre and a tiny bit pointless. Maybe Arnie and Sly should get together for a – oh, God, no, I’ve just remembered that they already have. As you were, gentlemen.

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Ahh, the cinema is filled with intelligent and thoughtful dramas, clearly aimed at an audience of mature adults – it must be February. I’m not great fan of the Oscars on most levels, but at least the very fact of their existence forces the major studios to invest in this kind of film, if only so they have a chance of making a good showing on gong night itself.

There is a certain protocol involved in getting your film onto the shortlist, with a few options available to you. One of the most popular is to secure the services of one of those performers who appears to be catnip to the Academy: in short, someone who only needs to turn up in front of the camera in order to secure an Oscar nomination. We speak here of the likes of Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, and so forth. And to this list we can probably add Denzel Washington, who recently picked up his fifth Oscar nomination, for Robert Zemeckis’ Flight.

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Flight is one of those intelligent and thoughtful dramas, sure enough, though something different is perhaps promised by the opening scene, in which a hungover and drugged-up Washington engages in a foul-mouthed squabble with his ex-wife over the phone while Nadine Velazquez wanders back and forth past the camera in the buff. The nudity has been singled out for comment in most of the other reviews of this film that I’ve read, which can’t solely be down to the easiness of Velazquez on the eye: it does smack somewhat of gratuitousness, certainly, and if it’s trying to establish that this is a film for grown-ups there are surely better ways they could have done this.

Anyway, it turns out that Washington is playing someone called Whip Whitaker, who is clearly a functioning alcoholic and substance abuser on a considerable scale. This, I would argue, would be his own business – and possibly that of the people immediately around him – were it not for the fact that he is an airline pilot flying passengers around the USA every day. The film does good work in making the extent of Whitaker’s on-the-job debility quite clear without laying it on with a trowel.

However, on this particular day Whitaker’s physical state is to prove of great significance: the jet he’s piloting experiences serious mechanical failure and, as malfunctioning planes are wont to do, starts heading earthward at an uncomfortable rate. It’s up to Whitaker to try and save the plane and everyone on board. (I don’t think I’m spoiling the film when I reveal that he succeeds.)

There’s a sense in which Flight is being marketed on the strength of the plane-crash sequence, which is fair enough as it is brilliantly executed, visually striking and extremely tense. But it’s all over and done with quite early in what’s a long film, and from that point on this is a much more serious and – sorry – grounded movie.

In fact, it’s not completely unreasonable to suggest that the whole plane crash angle and the legal fallout from it is really just Hollywood sugar sprinkled onto a story to attract a mainstream audience to what might otherwise be a rather heavy and uncommercial addiction drama. The rest of the plot really revolves around Whitaker’s attempts to come to terms with his drinking, in particular. The fact he’s being investigated for his part in the crash (and may be looking at prison time if he’s found to have been drunk in charge of an airliner) raises the stakes on this, certainly, but it’s not the sole or even the largest element of the story.

Nevertheless, this is still an engrossing and intelligent drama, much darker in places than you might expect, and filled with good performances – Washington is superb, fully deserving of his nomination, willing to appear unsympathetic for most of the film, and very capable of acting drunk without being hammy. Don Cheadle plays his lawyer, Bruce Greenwood his union representative, and Kelly Reilly is another addict, this one recovering, with whom Whitaker begins a tentative relationship. All of them are very good indeed, as are most of the supporting cast.

In its closing stages the film perhaps begins to skirt cliché much more frequently than it has previously done, and the inclusion of what’s practically a theological angle feels rather uncertain – the crash is declared an Act of God, the plane clipping a church on the way down is clearly meant to be significant, and there’s a faintly (and presumably intentionally) uncomfortable sequence where Whitaker meets another survivor of the crash who is a devout Christian and insists on praying with him. There’s a touch of melodrama towards the end, with the crash-investigation plot allowing for the easy drama of what’s essentially a courtroom setting, which suits the climax. Possibly I’m just a bit thick, but I didn’t at any point find myself thinking ‘Okay, so this is how it will play out…’ – I was too wrapped up in the story and characters to step back and think about that in too much detail, which has to be a tribute to the quality of the film.

Flight is a seriously-intentioned film and, for the most part, a satisfying one, with enough subtlety and moral ambiguity in its story to engage the viewer. The acting is very strong across the board as well. Probably not ideal as a piece of in-flight entertainment, but very good for any other venue.

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