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Posts Tagged ‘Halle Berry’

The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

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The cinematic calendar used to be so straightforward: big films across the summer and – to a lesser extent – at Christmas, Oscar-bait early in the year, and unpretentious genre movies the rest of the time. That was what you could pretty much expect down the local multiplex, but things seem to changing – the onset of blockbuster season has been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, while I’m seeing signs of an odd phenomenon developing in March. This month seems to be turning into a dumping ground for huge and expensive studio releases which the producers seem to have lost all faith in, an elephant’s graveyard of the overblown and underscripted.

This is largely based, I must say, on the fact that it was this time last year that John Carter of Mars came out, and currently we are enjoying the presence on our screens of Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings. The sheer scale and scope of this movie, not to mention the stellar cast list, would normally suggest a major release. As it is, the movie seems to have been slipped out by people who don’t really know what to do with it. This may be because Cloud Atlas is barking, barking mad.

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How to describe this movie? It does not have a plot. At least, not one; it has six, with tenuous connections linking them.

  • In 1849, a young man (Jim Sturgess) assisting his father’s slave trading activities in the South Pacific falls foul of the avaricious intentions of a corrupt doctor, with his one chance of survival lying in the hands of a former slave.
  • In 1936, an ambitious and amoral young musician (Ben Whishaw) finds work as the amanuensis of a distinguished and elderly composer. However, when the older man attempts to take the credit for his employee’s original work, he finds himself in an impossible situation.
  • In 1972, an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) discovers a conspiracy to smear the nuclear power industry by certain other vested interests. It quickly becomes apparent that the conspirators are more than happy to kill to protect their secret.
  • In 2012, a literary agent (Jim Broadbent) finds himself pursued for non-existent royalties by the gangster relatives of a former client. However, his choice of refuge leaves a lot to be desired…
  • In 2144, a clone servitor (Doona Bae) is rescued from her corporate enslavement and shown something of the wider world which she inhabits – a world which some people believe she has the power to greatly change for the better.
  • And in a far more distant, post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) belonging to  a primitive tribe strikes an alliance with an emissary from a more advanced civilisation, one that may affect the fates of every surviving human on Earth.

The movie cuts between these different stories across its very considerable running time. Oh, but if only this film was as straightforward as that makes it sound! In addition to the simple narrative links between the different plots – one character appears in two of them, Whishaw’s character reads a book about Sturgess, Doona Bae watches a movie adaptation of Jim Broadbent’s experiences, and so on – there are all sorts of other odd things happening. The main characters of all the stories share the same suggestive birthmark, and one character appears to have prophetic dreams concerning one of the later stories.

Most obviously, however, the film is mainly held together by the fact that the same actors appear in different roles in the different stories. So in addition to the tribesman, Tom Hanks plays the murderous doctor in 1849, a nuclear physicist in 1972, and so on. Just to give you an idea of the sheer scope and bounding absurdity of Cloud Atlas, in this film Hugh Grant – Hugh Grant! – plays a slave trader, a hotel manager, the nuclear plant boss, Jim Broadbent’s dodgy brother, a Korean restaurant manager – not the manager of a Korean restaurant, but a Korean man who manages an eating-spot – and a cannibal warlord.

I have to confess that, after a while, each appearance by one of the ensemble cast in a new guise was greeted with hoots of laughter at the screening I attended. This comparison-wrangling idea seems to have caught on, with the Wachowskis describing this movie as ‘Moby Dick meets 2001: A Space Odyssey but one British critic riposting with ‘Little Britain meets Blake’s 7′ (if I’d taken my own Comparison Wrangler to this movie I suspect his head would have exploded). I must confess that I tend more towards the latter view, with the important provisos that I actually like Blake’s 7, and that some of the more outrageous dressing-up seems to be intentionally played for laughs.

I mean, I can’t imagine any meeting by sane and intelligent movie creatives where they sat around and said ‘Okay, we’ve got this character of a middle-aged English nurse, a real battleaxe of a woman, who shall we get to play her?’ and the choice of – wait for it – Hugo Weaving could possibly be intended seriously. The same probably goes for Ben Whishaw’s appearance as Hugh Grant’s wife. Even so, I honestly have no idea what to make of Tom Hanks’ brief turn as a thuggish, shaven-headed  author, where he employs an accent that honestly defies description – is it meant to be Cockney? Irish? Pakistani? I truly had no idea.

Of course, this also leads the film into dodgy territory, as many of the cast pop up in – er – trans-ethnic makeup at various points. Halle Berry probably gets the medal here, playing characters of four different ethnicities and both genders at different points in the movie. The film never seems to be doing so for intentionally comic effect, and no-one actually blacks up, but even so I think this is probably questionable, and definitely adds to the vaulting weirdness of the experience.

That said, taken on their own terms and overlooking all the fun and games with casting and makeup, several of the stories work really well on their own terms – as vignettes, if nothing else. Being the kind of person that I am, I most enjoyed the Wachowski’s attempts at industrial dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF, which are visually superb and include some brilliantly-mounted action, but the Broadbent-led section is also hugely entertaining and the most comedic in tone. One thing you can say about Cloud Atlas is that its genre-hopping and tone-switching mean that it really does have something for everyone somewhere in its running time.

I had feared this movie might be pretentious and smug, but I didn’t find this at all – I found it to be terrific entertainment, with literally never a dull moment even across three hours. If it had been an hour longer I think I would still have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is by no means perfect, either in the specifics of the individual stories (the degenerate argot used by Hanks in the post-apocalypse really needs subtitles), or in its wider message: I still have no idea what the film as a whole is trying to suggest, beyond a vague universality in human aspirations and the challenges we face across the ages. Nevertheless, the insane ambition and vaulting oddness of Cloud Atlas, together with the fact that this is a technically superb film, combine to make it one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema in ages. An early contender for film of the year.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 8th 2003: 

Well, it looks like summer is nearly upon us, bringing with it a virtual cavalcade of sequels and superheroes (many with the letter X in their titles). The first of these is, of course, Bryan Singer’s X2 – the sequel to 2000’s X-Men. Superhero sequels actually have a pretty good strike rate (I’m thinking here of the second installments of Superman, Batman and Blade, for starters [I don’t know what the hell I was thinking of vis-a-vis Batman Returns. Sorry – A]), so surely this one isn’t going to be a let down… Certainly they’ve retained the same impressive cast: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still the one with the adamantium claws, skeleton, and quiff, Magneto (Gandalf) is still the mutant master of magnetism, Professor X (Patrick Stewart, taking the weight off) is the one whose superpowers are the least drain on the budget, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is still the one with the X-Man codename that the scriptwriters are too embarrassed to use…

Following on reasonably closely from the events of the first film, X2 opens with an attempt on the US President’s life by the imp-like teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a sequence which plays rather like The West Wing on acid. Army scientist Stryker (Brian Cox) uses this as an excuse to crack down on mutant activity, particularly the Xavier School – an institution he has a special and sinister interest in. Meanwhile, still on the scene are Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who have an agenda of their own…

Possibly due to the bigger budget, this is a slightly different film to the first one: where that essentially had a political subtext, this one is more personally and emotionally based. And, for most of the film, the results are spectacularly impressive, as the story alternates between impressive effects sequences and involving personal revelations to utterly engrossing effect.

I have never hidden the fact that I’m a comics fan, and so my approach to a film like this is inevitably slightly different to that of a purely cinematic feature like, ooh, Terminator 3. Most of the niggling gripes I had with the first film are answered, one way or another – this time round there’s a lot more action and many more X-Men on display, as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) get beefed-up roles and characters like Colossus, Jubilee, Beast, Shadowcat, and Karma all get cameos or namechecks of various significance. Having said that, Cyclops (James Marsden) is – very nearly unforgivably, given he’s a lynchpin of the comic – reduced to not much more than a supporting character, and there’s still no sign of the Danger Room.

But on its own terms as a film, X2 is highly impressive in nearly every respect. There’s a hugely charismatic performance from Jackman, a funny and sympathetic one from Cumming, and another world-class display of scene-stealing from Ian McKellen – he’s helped a lot by the fact that he gets, in his jail-break, arguably the best set-piece of the film. However, what keeps this from transcending X-Men in every single department is the climax. Where, the first time round, it was concise and simple and pacy, this time round it seems to take up about a quarter of the film’s running time, with half-a-dozen different plot threads and a succession of fights, crises, reversals and revelations. One of these is not only unnecessary and half-baked, but also a wholly underwhelming appropriation of the Dark Phoenix storyline (one of the most famous and best-loved stories from the comic), and thus promises to irk both the hard-core fans and normal people. The result is that the film loses momentum towards the end, which is a real disappointment – but at least it does provide genuine closure in place of a cliffhanger.

Given some of the groundbreaking pyrotechnics we’re promised later this summer (most obviously by the Wachowskis and Ang Lee) it would have been easy for X2 to slip back to being a blockbuster of the second rank. For all that it has its flaws and disappointments, this is an extremely impressive example of the genre, and entertaining from start to finish. Perhaps not the masterpiece that some people were anticipating, but by no means a disappointment: not a truly great movie, but great fun to watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 19th 2004:

And so the fight-back starts here. With movies based on Marvel Comics’ stable of characters having grossed over two billion dollars over the last five years, their old rivals at DC have decided to launch their retaliation with Jean-Christophe ‘Pitof’ Comar’s Catwoman, in which Halle Berry spends a lot of time bending over. That she does this in a movie supposedly about feminine empowerment gives you some idea of the magnitude of the intellects we’re dealing with.

Berry plays Patience Philips, a dowdy commercial artist employed by nasty cosmetics tycoon George Hedare (Lambert Wilson doing his snotty Frenchman schtick again). When she discovers that her boss’ new line of face cream is toxic, Hedare’s wife (Sharon Stone, battling heroically with a chronically one-dimensional part) has her flushed into the harbour.

However, luckily for Patience she is given mouth-to-mouth by a passing magic Egyptian cat, and she is resurrected with various feline powers (for some reason these include telescopic vision and the ability to stick to walls) with which to… well, do whatever she feels like. You go girl! None of that ‘with power comes responsibility’ stuff here! Having been apprised of her situation by daffy lunatic Ophelia (daffy lunatic specialist Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under, slumming it), Patience sets out to bring the Hedares to justice as Catwoman, a figure both mysterious and intimidating. Well, about as mysterious and intimidating as one can be whilst wearing a leather bra and trousers through which one’s bum-cheeks are plainly visible…

Now, the better-read amongst you will already have twigged that Berry is not playing the Catwoman, an iconic figure created by Bob Kane in 1940 as a sparring partner for Batman, but rather a catwoman. You will also have noticed that this movie steals Catwoman’s origin as re-imagined in Tim Burton’s 1992 movie Batman Returns: a movie noted mainly for its grandiose and overwrought incoherence, but also for its grotesque new spin on several classic characters. With this new interpretation at least twice removed from the source material, it would be nice to be able to treat the film as a completely new only-the-name’s-the-same version, but scribes John Brancato and Michael Ferris’s ham-fisted attempts to pay homage to the original character (there’s no reason why Berry’s character should start cracking a whip and stealing jewellery, other than because it’s what the classic Selina Kyle Catwoman does) and forge links between the two (Berry gets shown pictures of catwomen from earlier ages, one of which is a publicity shot of Michelle Pfeiffer from the Burton movie), make unfavourable comparisons inevitable.

I hate to say it, but it seems Halle Berry just can’t do superheroes. She’s extremely average as Storm in the X-Men franchise and she’s a crap Catwoman too. I’ve always thought Julie Newmar was the definitive screen Catwoman but even Pfeiffer did a better job than Berry does here. Supposedly an empowered, ambiguous, edgy figure, Berry comes across as about as dangerous and alluring as an Avon lady moonlighting as a low-rent dominatrix. The script’s idea of ambiguity is for Catwoman to steal a load of jewellery, and then have pangs of guilt and take it all back the next day.

Apart from this, Catwoman is a very much by-the-numbers superhero film in the modern style, somewhere between Steel and Daredevil in terms of quality. Pitof’s direction is strong on pretty pictures and bright colours, but rotten when it comes to characters and dialogue. Most of the plot gets squeezed into a very busy last half-hour. It isn’t even camp enough to be enjoyable as a piece of kitsch. Stone is quite good, as I mentioned up the page, and Benjy Bratt does a very reasonable job as Berry’s love-interest, but the rest of the performances are very forgettable (if you’re lucky).

And, yes, there’s that feminine empowerment thing… Quite apart from her (woeful) costume, there’s the very nature of the criminal scheme Catwoman gets mixed up in. You may recall that in their last screen outings, the X-Men saved the world from psionic genocide, and Spider-Man saved New York City from a nuclear apocalypse. Catwoman, in comparison, has to stop some dodgy make-up from going on sale. Not quite in the same league, is it, really, but it gives a good idea of what the film-makers think women are a) interested in and b) capable of dealing with.

This is clearly just meant to be a piece of fluffy Saturday evening fun, but even so, for a movie about Catwoman to be so vapid and sexist and patronising is just deeply offensive and depressing (and I’m not even that big a fan of the character – don’t get me started on the planned Jack Black Green Lantern movie!). It’s mildly enjoyable as a piece of junk, but by the standards of today’s superhero flicks, it really belongs in the kitty litter: Catwoman, the movie, is a dog.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 28th 2002: 

For me there are few greater pleasures in going to the movies than watching a white circle pan across a jet black screen, simply because that means that Britain’s, and the cinema’s, greatest hero is about to start doing his thing again. And so it proves with Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day, the 20th James Bond film, released in the year of the franchise’s ruby anniversary.

Typically, a stunt sequence most action movies would be glad to use as their climax is deployed here simply as an appetiser. Our hero (Pierce Brosnan, as ever flawlessly embodying Bond the icon) is in North Korea, as ever pursuing his own uniquely pyrotechnic brand of international relations. But when the dust settles there’s a shock in store for all concerned: rather than having it away on his toes and then having it away with, well, whoever he feels like, Bond is nabbed by the Koreans and slung in the clink. Bond spends the title sequence being tortured by his captors (the audience is particularly inclined to sympathise, as they spend the title sequence being tortured by Madonna).

It’s over a year before he gets out, a startling plot development but a very clever one. The usually invincible, immaculately turned-out Bond is grounded in reality as never before – unkempt, unshaven, and treated as damaged goods by his own superiors. And the film continues in the same gritty, realistic vein for some time, drawing you in, making you believe, making you care about the characters. And then, inevitably, once it has you, it soars off into a ludicrous realm where DNA transplants and invisible cars are entirely commonplace, taking you with it, well aware that reality has suddenly become a twinkling dot in the far distance, but really not caring at all.

There’s been much talk of how this new film contains knowing homages to many of the previous Bond films – and this is true. But, let’s face it, there are rarely more than cosmetic differences between these films anyway, and this one boils down to another retread of Bond Plot No.2: villain uses weapon in space to cause mischief. Along the way are all the things you’d expect from this franchise – girls, explosions, gadgets, girls, designer clothing, cars, spectacle, explosions, one-liners, girls, explosions and girls (quite properly, Bond does not let the malnutrition, brutalisation and psychological trauma of his prison experiences get in the way of his usual regime of conspicuous consumerism, chauvinism and carnage).

To be honest, the female characters are rather underwritten – Halle Berry rises above this through sheer force of personality and by virtue of being so damn easy on the eye, but Rosamund Pike struggles to convince. The villains have had much more thought put into them, however – there’s a great henchman in Rick Yune’s Zao, and Toby Stephens gives a fine, multi-layered performance as the oily Gustav Graves. One of the best things about the Brosnan Bond is the way the role of the chief villain has been played with – after making the villain a friend of Bond’s, and then the Bond girl, they now take the next logical step and – in a manner of speaking – make the villain Bond himself. A wonderful idea, but one wonders where they can go next without repeating themselves. The Bond regulars – Judi Dench, John Cleese, Samantha Bond and Colin Salmon – carry out their roles with customary aplomb, and there’s a cameo from Michael Madsen (an actor I’ve always had a soft spot for since Reservoir Dogs).

The only previous film of Lee Tamahori’s that I’ve seen is the brutal domestic drama Once Were Warriors, which brought both the director and Temuera (Jango Fett) Morrison to international attention, and to be honest I couldn’t see why the Bond producers had given him this assignment when I first heard he’d got the job. But they clearly recognised that talent is talent: this is the most stylishly directed Bond movie to date, with entirely novel techniques and flourishes being utilised throughout. Even more impressive is his command of pacing and tempo – starting the big set piece sequences small and controlled, before slowly building them into some of the most frenziedly exciting, over-the-top action scenes seen in recent years. Only some unconvincing CGI lets him down – also the fact that the film feels like it peaks too soon, the actual climax seeming a little routine and mundane given some of what has preceded it.

But these are quibbles. This is a stunning piece of pure entertainment, with the swagger and wit of the very best Bond movies. When the franchise is on this kind of form, it’s almost irresistible, and it’s barely credible that a film so rooted in tradition and formula can seem so vital and fresh. As far as action-adventure movies go, nobody does it better.

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