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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

We’re in the middle of one of those funny, slightly unpredictable times of year, when you’re as likely to come across a tiny oddball sleeper release as something which has been produced and marketed as an aspiring blockbuster. As I say, it’s a product of the time of year: it’s too late for full-blown blockbuster season, but similarly too early for the genuine awards contenders to start making their appearance. So you do tend to get a lot of mid-budgeted genre movies of different kinds, and doing the rounds at the moment is the new Jo Nesbo (final O with a line through it) movie. Long-term readers (may God have mercy on you) may recall I was rather impressed by a couple of Nesbo adaptations which came out about five years ago, Headhunters and Jackpot. Those were both foreign language movies given a subtitled release over here, but the new movie is Anglophone. Directed by Tomas Alfredsen, it’s a grisly, hard-edged crime thriller, definitely not for children or the squeamish, entitled The Snowman.

(Hmmm. Something not quite right here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Never mind, it’ll come to me.)

Oh well. Things get underway with a prologue of unremitting grimness, set in the wilds of Norway, setting the tone for the rest of the movie rather economically. Brightening this up a little is an English-language cameo from Sofia Helin, most famous outside of Scandinavia for her role as the detective with ASD from the TV show The Bridge: sadly, she is not in the rest of the movie.

We are then introduced to top Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who is – all together now – brilliant at his job but lousy at holding his personal life together. As the movie opens he is forever waking up in the park after a heavy night on the booze, which is not something to be done lightly in Oslo in the winter. ‘I need a case, I need to work!’ cries Harry when taken to task by his do-everything-by-the-book superior. ‘I can’t help it if the murder rate is so low,’ snaps his boss. Luckily, plenty of murders are just about to happen, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, someone is going about kidnapping and then murdering women in a quite horrific fashion, and leaving snowmen as his calling card. (It’s never made completely clear whether the snowman-building happens before or after all the dismemberment takes place; it strikes me as a rather cumbersome M.O. for a modern serial killer, but what do I know about these things.) Harry isn’t initially assigned to what’s at first believed to be a routine missing persons case, but he is friends with the officer who is (Rebecca Ferguson), and together they figure out what’s going on. But can they locate the killer before yet more women (yes, it is mostly women) meet a sticky end?

(Oh, hang on. I’ve figured it out.)

(That’s more like it.)

As I said, I was properly impressed and entertained by both the previous Nesbo (O with a line through it) movies that I saw, primarily by the cleverness of the plotting and the black humour running through both stories. Then again, it does seem that our Scandi cousins have a knack for this sort of thing – I’m not a big fan of the label ‘Scandi noir’ (or ‘Nordic noir’), but detective shows from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have become something of a fixture on at least one UK TV network, and it seems to me that The Snowman is trying to tell the same kind of story in the same kind of way.

All the elements are there, I suppose – troubled family backgrounds, people keeping secrets from their loved ones, corruption in high places, gore – but the actual story just isn’t quite up to scratch. The Magic Wand of Improbable Coincidence gets waved over the plot fairly frequently, to say nothing of the way that the story digresses away from the serial killer plot and gets mixed up in shady goings on involving a prominent businessman (J.K. Simmons) and a bid for the ‘World Winter Sports Cup’ (I guess the Winter Olympics people took one look at the script and said ‘No way are you using our name in this!’).

The story gets lost in other ways too: there’s a bit of a cold case element to the plot (the killer has been at it for ages), and the film chooses to incorporate this by having a few flashbacks. I’m not sure these were strictly necessary, but even if they were, I think it was probably a mistake to centre them around a character played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer is not, to put it delicately, ageing gracefully, nor has his acting range improved – the fact that I’d got the impression from somewhere or other that he had actually died is neither here nor there. His appearance is, in short, rather a distraction.

Also problematic is the way that the film-makers don’t really seem to be content with making a good solid detective thriller – every now and then a scene comes along suggesting this movie wants to be a serious drama about the personal lives of Harry and those people around him. Well, Fassbender and his fellow actors are capable enough, but again the result is a film which lacks focus and often feels laborious on a thematic level – it’s clear from very early on that it’s largely about what it means to be a good (or bad) parent, but the script keeps grinding on about this, rather unsubtly.

I’m not sure there is a way to subtly depict various people having their heads literally blown off or body parts removed with power tools (the killer has a special gadget just for this purpose, I wonder if you can get one on Amazon), but if there is, The Snowman does not hit upon it. I would say this is a very strong 15, certificate-wise: there’s some proper gore and grue in the course of the movie. Personally, I am mostly desensitised to this sort of thing, but I am aware a lot of people aren’t – and there are horror-movie levels of splatter at times during The Snowman.

This is really a case of a movie which has all the right ingredients – good cast, interesting premise, strong set of genre conventions – but which fumbles putting them together. It’s watchable, but the story is too often unclear, and arguably not really strong enough to justify the various excesses of the film’s violence.

Then again, I suppose we should talk about the whole emphasis of a film like The Snowman. The treatment of women, especially attractive young actresses, is a talking point as I write, with an industry culture that seems to accept their exploitation and objectification increasingly coming under scrutiny. There is not, to my knowledge, any suggestion that the makers of The Snowman have been accused of any wrongdoing or suspect behaviour. But even so, this is a movie in which male-on-female violence is both graphic and endemic. Every major female character is a victim at some point or other; the only significant nudity in the film is that of a young, female actor, and it’s gratuitous. Which would be worse, I wonder, to be a serial abuser of women who makes films that are classy and morally unimpeachable, or a decent human being who nevertheless makes films which shows women primarily as sexual objects to be used and abused? It’s an artificial distinction, I know, but it seems to me that if you got rid of every grasping studio executive, along with all the others who exploit their position of power, you would still be left with a lot of misogynistic exploitation in the actual movies themselves. If the movies seem to have a problem with their treatment of women, it’s arguably because the fact we still buy tickets sends the message that this is what we really want.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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One of the particular pleasures of infiltrating my family’s parties, as I do a couple of times a year, is the opportunity to catch up with my semi-cousin, His MBEship. In addition to being the only person even vaguely connected with the clan to have been honoured by HRH, His MBEship is a well-read fellow and seldom lets a visit go by without pushing a book in my direction and saying ‘take a look at this.’ Many of these are things which would not necessarily show up on my radar in the usual course of events, but they have always turned out to be interesting and worth taking a look at. Back in July, His MBEship’s pick was Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, which is such a substantial tome (nearly 950 pages) that I’ve only just finished reading it.

It’s a little difficult to pin down exactly what kind of book this is. A brief summary of the plot makes it sound like a thriller: the protagonist, an Australian escaped convict whose real name we never learn, arrives in Bombay on a stolen passport at some point in the early 1980s. He finds he rather likes the place, makes friends with a comic-relief local guide, falls in love with another member of the expat scene, becomes a black-market fixer, slum doctor, prisoner, gangster, peripheral member of the Bollywood scene, and unwilling mujahideen, all over the course of about five or six years.

However, one must also bear in mind that this rollicking tale of an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ends up living in India for years has been written by an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ended up living in India for years, and one of the questions floating around this book is just to what extent it is some sort of roman a clef, and how much of it is based on stuff which actually happened to Roberts. ‘They’re novels – it doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not,’ is the author’s official position on the topic, and whatever else you can say about his writing, he hides the joins supremely well. My personal suspicion (apologies to the author if I’m wrong) is that he did not, in fact, nearly die of frostbite in Afghanistan after being hit by a mortar shell while fighting the Soviets, but he tells this part of the tale with all the vividness and detail that he does the rest of it.

And there is rather a lot of it, as I mentioned before. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a good epic, and the author mixes things up and varies the tone rather deftly – the narrative goes from a nerve-wracking visit to the chilling madam of a high-class brothel, to a considered discussion of the nature of good and evil with an Afghan crime lord, to a comic vignette about trying to get a bear bailed out of jail, in the space of as many scenes. Some of the transitions are so outrageous it’s hard to believe they’re not based on true events.

And as a thriller it’s a good story, set in a world not much covered by mainstream western media – you can see why a film version has been in the works for years (it is such a no-brainer that Joel Edgerton will be playing the protagonist that even I was able to guess as much), although I wish the screenwriter luck in getting the story down to under six hours of screen time.

The thing is, though, that Shantaram (the title is Marathi for ‘Man of peace’, and it’s not clear whether this is meant to be ironic or not) seems to have aspirations to be more than just a hefty airport novel and actually become Proper Literature. It tries really, really hard on this score; so hard that I would say the strain occasionally shows.

Well, look, there are lots of books and movies about gangsters – it’s one of those genres that never seems to go out of fashion. Roberts’ protagonist cloaks himself in the dubious glamour of the outlaw, the gangster, the wanted man, in addition to the various other ways he arguably self-aggrandises himself – he talks a lot about guilt and regret but it never feels particularly palpable. The subtext seems to be ‘Yeah, I was a bank robber and a gangster, but it’s not as if there’s much wrong with that, because I did it as honourably as I could, never personally killed anyone, and I came away with all these valuable life lessons which I will now proceed to share with you.’ Gee, thanks, I think.

One of the reasons His MBEship was so impressed with Shantaram is the sheer level of detail and local colour woven into the text. Well, yes, Roberts clearly knows Bombay well, but I suspect there was less research involved – when you live in a place even for a short time, you do pick this stuff up surprisingly quickly. Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of practical bits and pieces from reading the book: how to win a knife fight in the prison laundry, how to make a fortune by dealing in stolen passports, various philological and geographical tidbits too.

For me the problematic stuff comes when Roberts decides to start waxing eloquent about the important truths of life. He writes naturalistic dialogue and action scenes very well, but whenever he gets his descriptive hat on you get a sense of someone slightly overreaching himself – we get lots of mentions of ‘the psalm of her hair’ and ‘the archery of her mouth’, and my gut reaction was ‘what on Earth are you on about.’ Roberts’ slightly overenthusiastic approach to this sort of thing gets its fullest expression in the Bad Sex Scenes he occasionally includes – ‘our tongues writhed and pulsated in their caves of pleasure,’ he helpfully informs the reader, as one amorous interlude gets underway. Maybe that gets you in the mood; I just want to go ‘ugh’.

Beyond this, not a chapter goes by without Roberts making multiple portentous declarations about What It Is All About – Every dead body is a temple in ruins. Every door is a portal to both the past and the future. Now, he does occasionally come up with some very good lines – ‘some truths don’t make us love the world more, but they help us to hate it less’, for instance. But I found a lot of this wisdom to be Reader’s Digest-standard and not nearly as profound as Roberts appears to think it is: things frequently get just a bit pretentious. It also seems to smack of a certain level of self-regard – we are frequently reminded that Shantaram‘s semi-autobiographical hero is an outlaw, a gangster, a tough man, a man of peace, a writer (other characters occasionally come up to him and tell him what a good writer he is, even though this has zero bearing on the plot) – luckily we’re never told what a humble and modest chap he is, because that really would be pushing it.

So I was never really able to fully commit to Shantaram – ‘to enfold my heart in the quiet wisdom of its many pages’, as Roberts might possibly put it – even as I enjoyed its colour and vibrancy. It’s an interesting and extremely readable book, very funny in places and occasionally quite moving. But too often it almost feels like Paulo Coelho trying to write Goodfellas – a promising epic adventure-thriller frequently sidetracked by philosophical and poetic discursions which are not really all that insightful. But the ratio of impressive storytelling to pretentious waffle is good enough to make this worth a look, I would say.

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Never let it be said that this blog is unafraid to tackle the heavyweight questions of the day: for instance, is Orlando Bloom really an actor? Now, wait just a cotton-picking minute there if you think I am in any way casting aspersions on Landy’s abilities when it comes to the thespian department. No, the reason for my question is the simple fact that, for a major global celebrity, our man Bloom doesn’t really seem to turn up in many movies these days. I mean, there was his (I am tempted to say thankfully) brief cameo in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but outside of his appearances in the Hobbit movies I can’t think of much I’ve seen him in in the last ten years or so.

Well, I believe the answer may partly lie in the fact that, in addition to his other activities, Landy has taken up being a film producer (why do I suddenly suspect that becoming a film producer is not as difficult as I always thought?). As any fule kno, being a film producer involves lots of meetings and calls and discussions about movies which most of the time end up not being made at all, despite hefty development fees changing hands. So you might say that Landy has hit upon a wheeze where people are paying him not to make movies (I wish he had come up with that idea about fifteen years ago).

The flaw in this arrangement, unfortunately, is that one of Landy’s films occasionally slips through the net and ends up going into production, but I guess that’s a possibility we have to live with. Even then, it does look like not all of these films actually make it into cinemas, as in the case of Michael Apted’s movie from this year, Unlocked. If this film got more than the most limited UK cinema release, I didn’t notice it at the time, and was totally unaware of its existence until someone gave me it on DVD (presumably on the grounds that they think I don’t watch nearly enough movies these days).

Unlocked is a not especially sexy title for what aspires to be a taut and exciting contemporary thriller. Indeed, it’s not really a particularly pertinent title, given what goes on in the plot, but on the other hand it is amongst the least of this movie’s problems.

Noomi Rapace brings clinical intensity, memorable cheekbones, and a suspiciously Swedish accent to the role of Alice Racine, a CIA agent who has spent the last couple of years working undercover as a Citizen’s Advice bod at a London community centre. Pyoiiinnggg! (That would be the sound of my disbelief being stretched beyond its natural limits, and we’re only in the first line of the plot synopsis. Let’s press on.) Alice used to be a top CIA interrogator but after a traumatic incident she has taken a step back, hence the community centre gig.

However, when another top CIA interrogator unexpectedly carks it in London just before beginning a vital job, Alice finds herself dragged out of semi-retirement. An Islamic terrorist has laid his hands on one of those them-there doomsday viruses, and is awaiting instructions on what to do with it. The CIA have nabbed the courier due to give him said instructions, and want him breaking down so they can send the terrorist false information and stop the virus being disseminated. How much more straightforward can things get?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out, as events prove the CIA has been compromised, and when the courier and a bunch of other agents end up getting killed, Alice is the chief person of interest. Inevitably she ends up going on the run from her own superiors, in search of the traitors, with her main ally being Jack, an ex-marine turned burglar who she caught breaking into her flat. Could it look any bleaker? Well, Jack is played by Landy himself.

Yup, that’s Landy Bloom as a lovably roguish ex-marine hard man. Pyoiiinnggg! (Sorry – it might be a good idea to wear protective goggles, or something.) To be honest, the main thing to be said about Landy’s contribution to Unlocked is how superfluous it feels – you almost get the sense that the script came across Landy’s desk, and he liked it so much he not only decided to make it, but also insisted it was rewritten so he could be in it (shades of that story about the millionaire buying the American football team and then insisting on playing quarterback). He comes into it quite a long way in. He doesn’t do a great deal while he’s there. And then, well before the climax, he vanishes out of the film in very peculiar circumstances indeed, with the fate of his character obscure, to say the least. Still, his face is nice and big on the DVD cover, anyway.

(Hmm – my usual slapdash research suggests Landy didn’t actually produce this film, despite the fact that one of the production entities is named ‘Bloom’. Curiouser and curiouser. Well, sort of.)

Landy’s contribution aside, Unlocked is basically a fairly typical modern thriller, very morally neutral and crissy-crossy, wanting to be one of the Bourne movies so badly it probably physically hurts – in a couple of places the music is so obviously ripped-off from that franchise that I’m surprised writs didn’t change hands. In addition to aping the style of a major blockbuster, it also looks like the movie has managed to land a major blockbuster cast – quite apart from Rapace and Landy, it features Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich.

Nevertheless, this is really quite a dull movie – it’s competently written and assembled, I suppose, and when Rapace is actually doing her interrogating there are some interesting nuggets of tradecraft in the script. But once it all gets going and she has to go on the run, well, it all becomes at best predictable and at worst rather preposterous. There’s a major plot twist, for instance, that I spotted the instant it was introduced. And the motivation of the bad guy, when it’s revealed, is really and truly absurd – he’s orchestrating a major biochemical weapons attack on US citizens basically as a way of whistle-blowing the dangers of viral terrorism. I would suggest a strongly-worded memo might be a somewhat saner method of achieving the same results.

As I say, most of the performances and so on are fine (although Noomi Rapace is perhaps a bit too much of a Proper Serious Actress to be entirely comfortable in the role of ass-kicking babe, which is basically what’s required of her here), but I strongly suspect that in a couple of days’ time I will have forgotten almost everything about the plot of the movie. It’s not actively bad, most of the time, but it doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself from the dozens of other recent movies made with a similar style and ethos. If you haven’t seen another thriller this century, then Unlocked may prove to be a pleasant surprise, but even then, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

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Autumn is upon us, schools and universities are back in session, the last of the big summer tentpole movies have been and gone, and in the pause before the onset of serious awards-bait, we have a chance of a slightly more interesting and intelligent type of genre movie. This is also an opportunity for people who get their biggest pay-checks for appearing in movies about killer robots and giant monsters to show that they still have what it takes as credible actors and not just the basis for action figures. Thus, we find Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen appearing in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Officer who is also a lethal rifle shot (nice to see that Renner shows no sign of becoming typecast – I can think of at least a dozen movies where he plays a sniper, a special forces operative, an assassin, or something similar). He describes himself as a hunter, but one of the things the film quietly suggests is that the difference between a hunter and a sniper is basically down to where you happen to be pointing your gun. Lambert is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, on the trail of a mountain lion, when he comes across the half-dressed corpse of a young woman, frozen solid inside a snowdrift.

The authorities are summoned, including happened-to-be-in-the-area FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) – Banner originally hails from Florida, so the wilds of Wyoming in the depths of winter are not exactly her comfort zone. A medical examination takes place, and many blood-curdling details relating to exactly how one dies of exposure when underdressed in a blizzard are passed on to the audience, but the most significant one is that, although she was attacked, the girl’s cause of death was technically exposure, not actual murder, which means Banner will not be given the full support and resources of the FBI as she works on the case – the local Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) is not surprised.

Still, Lambert is willing to pitch in, which is probably just as well, as the answers to the mystery of the girl’s death lie somewhere out in the snowy wilderness. Many grim truths about the inhabitants of Wind River threaten to come to light, provided Lambert and Banner survive to discover them – the land itself here can be as deadly as any criminal…

I really should keep better track of my up-and-coming American writer-directors. All the way through Wind River I found myself thinking that there was something about this film, the strength of the writing and dialogue, the sense of time and place, the elegant unfolding of the plot, which put me rather in mind of Hell or High Water from last year. And, of course, that was another Taylor Sheridan movie – if you want a smart, tough thriller set in the wide-open spaces of the US of Stateside, Sheridan is turning into a very good bet.

Once again, it’s a little tricky to pin down exactly what kind of movie this is – there are elements of the investigative-procedural, of course (visits to the path lab and so on), but also sections with a strong western vibe to them. Renner spends a fair chunk of the film in a cowboy hat, and while he isn’t strictly speaking a lawman, his character is definitely out for justice in a certain very specific way.

Ordinarily, films which give house room to the notion of (for want of a better expression) frontier justice make me rather uncomfortable, as it strikes me as a very dubious message to putting into a piece of entertainment. Wind River manages to get away with it, much to my surprise, probably because it contextualises the idea so thoroughly and seems to be presenting it fairly dispassionately. It’s inevitably a bleak idea, but then this is a largely bleak film. It is, I would say, normal for films in this kind of setting to engage in a little social commentary on the lot of the inhabitants of reservations, and Wind River is no exception – the icy setting reflects the death of hope which has come to afflict so many of the film’s characters, and emphasises that this is a place profoundly different from America’s urban centres – this is a place from which only the strong can emerge unscathed.

To be honest, the murder-mystery element of Wind River’s plot is not particularly complex or challenging, but then the film is about other things – as mentioned, the loss of hope, and the corrosive effects of grief and guilt. The film needs considerable heft for this to work, and gets it mostly from Jeremy Renner, who gives a really impressive performance, achieving that neat trick of revealing everything about a character who really doesn’t speak much or show real emotion in the usual course of events. Olsen is also very good – one hopes she will break out of the genre ghetto at some point. Then again, this is a film with consistently strong performances from a mainly unknown cast (although Jon Bernthal pops up for a brief cameo at a crucial moment).

On the other hand, the film also contains some well-staged action, and what I took away from it was not really much to do with the characters or plot but a general sense of people struggling to find reasons to live – and, of course, the magnificent landscape of Montana in winter.

I suspect I’m making Wind River sound like an incredibly bleak and joyless experience, and while it’s not completely bereft of lighter moments, in general this is a serious and thoughtful film. And while it is true that the film does not shy away from the repugnant nature of some of the crimes involved, I think that’s infinitely preferable to a film in which people are casually blown away by the dozen and sexual assault is treated mainly as a seasoning element to make a film just a little bit more piquant for the jaded viewer.

Wind River is not a light or frothy film, but it does pretty much everything you would want from a film of this type – the drama and thriller elements complement each other flawlessly, the performances are good, the atmosphere is almost palpable, and the theme of the film is clear without the audience being beaten about the head by it. This is a very fine film.

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It’s not very common for a film to make it all the way into cinemas without me seeing a reasonable amount of publicity for it – if it’s a film that falls within my (fairly undiscriminating) area of interest, anyway. And yet this is what happened with Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem. Two questions obviously leap to mind – why did your correspondent go and see it, based on nothing but a title, a cast list, and a vague capsule description? And is it genuinely receiving some kind of stealth release, or can the producers just not be bothered to pay for an ad campaign?

Second things first – and the honest answer is, I’m not sure. The film had its world premiere nearly a year ago, and while twelve months isn’t an exceptional period of time for a film to sit on the shelf, it doesn’t really indicate a distributor bursting with confidence either. I’ve commented in the past on the fact that trailers tend to appear before a film of the same general kind, and The Limehouse Golem is an extremely tough movie to categorise in some ways – is it a period detective story, a grisly splatter horror movie, or a slightly more niche drama? The other question is a little easier to answer – we’re going through a quiet period release-wise at present, I’m loathe to waste an afternoon off by not going to the cinema, and this looked like it might be agreeably Hammer horror-ish. Which, I have to say, only goes to show…

The movie is based on the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the noted authority on all things Londonian Peter Ackroyd – which seems to be one of those novels which flaunts its erudition by including all manner of historical figures as characters, some famous, some much more obscure. On some level I suppose this therefore qualifies as another Victoriana mash-up, along the lines of Anno Dracula or Dickensian, but it’s less user-friendly than either of those.

The year is 1880 and Londoners are living in fear as a savage, brutal killer walks amongst them, slaughtering prostitutes, Jews, and whole families, seemingly at will. Installed as the fall guy on this challenging case is police detective Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), along with his sidekick PC Flood (Daniel Mays). Kildare’s investigations lead him to the reading room of the British Museum and a list of four men, one of whom must surely be the killer who has been given the nickname of the Limehouse Golem.

However, one of the suspects has recently died in suspicious circumstances, and his widow Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for his murder. Is there a connection? Kildare finds himself obliged to delve into the history of a string of grisly murders, while trying to uncover the truth about Elizabeth and her own unsettling personal history…

I am sure that Peter Ackroyd is a very erudite man. However, the screenplay for this movie was written by Jane Goldman, and while I’m sure she has many fine qualities, erudition and subtlety are not necessarily the ones that immediately leap to mind based on her previous work (Kingsman, The Woman in Black, Kick-Ass). How to best describe The Limehouse Golem? Well, one thing you can say about it is that it is never knowingly under-wrought.

Another is that there is something genuinely refreshing about a film which so comprehensively cuts loose from normal conventions of movie storytelling. There were whole sequences in this film which had me slack-jawed and goggling at the screen, confounded by the sheer audacity and weirdness of the thing. Is it a period procedural about a set of murders clearly intended to suggest the Ripper killings of 1888? Or is it a rather different kind of film about a young woman’s rise from extreme poverty to success in the music halls of Victorian London, and the pressures on her even after becoming a star? The film ping-pongs back and forth between them like a cross between a particularly gory slasher film and an episode of The Good Old Days (younger readers, ask your grandparents).

If this movie were a pudding submitted for the Great British Pudding Showdown, I rather imagine that the first note from the judges would be ‘Easy on the eggs in future’. It opens at such a pitch of near-strangulated tension that it really finds itself with virtually nowhere else to go, and practically the whole film takes place with every element – script, performances, direction – elevated to an extreme level; naturalistic this movie is definitely not. At one point there’s a particularly startling sequence in which Karl Marx – yes, that Karl Marx – dressed up in a top hat and cape, saws the head off a prostitute. And this is not much more startling than most of the rest of the movie, which is stuffed with baroque dialogue, double-entendre-laden musical numbers, dwarfs, transvestitism, kinky sexual practices, severed body parts, and repressed libidos. There also seems to be some sort of LGBT subtext going on here, but as this is the one element of the film not rammed into the audience’s frontal lobes, it’s a little difficult to tell what message it’s trying to communicate beyond the obvious and pedestrian one.

Does it actually work as a movie, though? Well, you can always rely on Bill Nighy to deliver a superb performance, and I’m starting to think the same is also true of Olivia Cooke, who has never failed to impress me in any of the films I’ve seen her in. In terms of simple production values, British companies are simply very good at this kind of late-Victorian period piece. The Limehouse Golem is never less than arresting viewing, and rattles along energetically. But, at the same time, the film is so all over the place that I’m not quite sure what it wants to be or say, and it does feature the kind of plot twist which is simultaneously outrageously unbelievable and rather predictable.

In the end, The Limehouse Golem is really not very much like a Hammer horror film, but neither is it much like anything else I can remember seeing recently, either. There are lots of good things going on here, along with much that is baffling, some that is startling, and a few things that are actively silly. In the end the whole confection is probably a bit too bizarre and phantasmagorical to really succeed as a movie, but you could certainly argue that this is one of those movies where the incidental pleasures of the journey just about make up for the fact that the destination isn’t anything particularly special.

 

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There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s AEon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.

 

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