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Posts Tagged ‘James Watkins’

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’).

bastille-day

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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How very pleasant it is to have a Hammer production topping the UK movie charts, and rather unexpected too. That said, of course, the success of James Watkins’ The Woman in Black has probably less to do with residual affection for the House of Horror than the presence in it of Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from a certain other franchise which has received moderate financial success. Some people have described the Potter movies as ‘Hammer Horror for Kids’, which I don’t think is entirely fair to either J.K. Rowling’s work or the House, but the connection is perhaps responsible for the peculiar phenomenon of Radcliffe going on a round of appearances, supposedly to plug the movie, where he repeatedly warned people against taking their children to see it!

Being in the midst of studying for a diploma in teaching, the prospect of an atmosphere redolent in incipient dread and despair made a welcome change from one of actual dread and despair, and this, coupled to my long-time love of Hammer, made it pretty much a certainty that I’d be going along to see the new film. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, this is the story of Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young solicitor in Edwardian London. Since the death of his wife in childbirth, he has been struggling to, as they say, keep things together, and is now given one last chance to show competence in his work. He is dispatched to a remote part of the north of England to sort out the paperwork of a recently-deceased elderly woman.

Harry Arthur soon discovers that a dreadful pall hangs over the area, centred on the old house his duties require him to work in. His presence is resented by the locals, who seem besieged by a succession of fatal accidents befalling their children – accidents they attribute to the baleful presence around the house of a spectral Woman in Black… Can Arthur complete his work in the house with his sanity intact? And, even worse, can he be in such close proximity to the source of the Woman in Black’s power without being somehow tainted by it himself?

James Watkins’ previous directing credit was Eden Lake, which was an authentically gruelling and properly nasty horror movie but by no means supernatural in its focus. The Woman in Black, on the other hand, is a proper spook story, very much in the classic vein. As a result, it has more than a few similarities with films like The Others and The Awakening, even to the point of repeating some of the same dramatic beats. Nevertheless, this is a superior addition to the genre for most of its running time.

Initially, though, the decision to employ Daniel Radcliffe’s formidable star-power seems like a mis-step – he looks rather too young for the part and is issued with some painfully non-Edwardian dialogue (‘Gotta rush! Don’t wanna miss the train!’ he pipes up with near the start). But, once a London swathed in dodgy CGI fog is left behind, the film fully immerses itself in the oppressively creepy atmosphere hinted at from the very first scenes.

As well as this chilly bleakness, the film benefits from the very solid three-act structure of Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Kipps’ encounters with the Woman in Black and the effects of her power grow longer and more intense as the film goes on and his comprehension of what is happening increases. That said, the fact that the film doesn’t solely consist of the main character rattling around inside an old house in the dark is also a strength.

To be perfectly honest Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond react and look strained for most of this movie, but he does this rather well. Also near the top of the cast list are Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, who are both rather good in their individual ways. Liz White plays the title role, but I’ll be curious to see how much of this film ends up on her showreel…

It’s quite common in this kind of film for the ghostly manifestation to in some way be a metaphor for the main character’s own psychological issues or troubled past, but the movie avoids this idea along with many other cliches: the Woman in Black is wholly external, with her own story. Neither is she just a passive figure inadvertantly influencing anyone trespassing in her domain, but an active menace with her own very specific agenda.

And this is a scary film, with many shrink-back-in-your-seat or emit-a-soft-meep moments. Watkins orchestrates these rather well, as well as the film’s deeper source of disquiet. A previous TV version of this story was scripted by the great Nigel Kneale, and it seemed to me that some of his influence has filtered through into the movie – particularly his rigorously logical approach to the behaviour of supernatural forces. The slow realisation by both Kipps and the audience that the Woman in Black is not simply an unquiet spirit but an unstoppable, irrational force of vengeance is finely achieved, and the film’s most terrifying moment comes not from anything directly on the screen but a sudden understanding on the part of the viewer that Kipps has wholly misunderstood the nature of the Woman in Black…

It’s a fine moment, impressively subverting genre conventions while staying true to itself, which makes it all the more depressing when the film blows it in its final minute or so. An ending which looked like it was going to be ruthlessly dark and downbeat is, crudely, twisted so it ends up sentimental and soggy-headed.

The ending of this kind of film is, of course, the hardest part to get right – The Awakening fell down just as badly, if not worse – and there’s more than enough good stuff in the first 93 minutes or so to make this film very much worth a look. The Woman in Black is by no means a traditional Hammer horror (there’s a distinct lack of Kensington Gore and bare breasts), relying more on atmosphere to get its scares. But get them it definitely does.

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