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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

A new terror has been brought to going to the multiplex. I turned up to watch a movie the other day, thinking I was in comfortably good time, only to find that the trailers were already in progress. Still, it wasn’t that big a deal, and so I and the other folk in attendance dutifully absorbed the publicity material for How to Train Your Dragon 3 (no thanks), Bumblebee (maybe, and I never thought I’d say that about a Transformers film), and Mary Poppins 2 (only if you put guns to the heads of my family). It should have occurred to me that something was amiss, but this only became apparent when the BBFC card came up, making it clear that we were all about to be exposed to Nativity Rocks!.

If you had released anthrax in the auditorium I doubt you would have seen so many people bolting for the door so rapidly. A somewhat panicked mob assembled at the concessions desk, as everyone explained (in voices perhaps an octave or so higher than normal) that they had paid to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web, not some gruellingly schmaltzy family-friendly Christmas film. Fortunately, the cinema manager only had to reboot the projector and hand out some free ticket vouchers and peace was restored: the spectre of cute singing children and a seasonal message of goodwill was banished, and we could settle down to enjoy a feast of torture, bloodletting, misogynistic violence and general Scandinavian misery.

Stieg Larssen’s Millennium books made pots of money about ten years ago, and that’s the sort of thing that Hollywood studios notice. They do seem to have formed the notion that there is an audience for films based on these books and their central characters: Sony did, after all, spend $90 million on an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo back in 2011, with A-list talent on both sides of the camera. Despite raking in two-and-a-half-times its budget, the arcane mysteries of Hollywood accounting mean that this film officially lost money, hence the rather lengthy delay before this follow-up (directed by Fede Alvarez).

Some thought seems to have gone into how to make this new film more financially viable than the previous one. The first one drew many unfavourable comparisons with the Swedish-language version with Noomi Rapace, and so the rest of the original Larssen trilogy has been skipped over in favour of the first adaptation of an authorised continuation to the series by someone else. David Fincher is still involved, but only as a producer, and Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (with their expensive A-list salaries) have also had to look for work elsewhere. The more extreme elements of the first film have been toned down and massaged away to guarantee a more box-office-friendly 15 certificate.

As the film opens, Lisbeth Salander (she who is possessed of near-mystical computer hacking skills and a mythical piece of skin art) has become a legendary figure in Swedish society, occasionally surfacing to exact brutal vengeance on men who mistreat women. This is all basically backstory, however, for the plot proper sees Salander (now played by Claire Foy, who seems to be specialising in roles as iconic Betties) hired by a conscience-stricken atomic computer boffin (Stephen Merchant, playing it wholly straight) who has written a doomsday McGuffin for the American government and now wishes he hasn’t. The boffin wants Salander to steal the McGuffin back, which she promptly does, but before she can hand it over armed bad guys bust into her hideout, try to kill her, and steal the one and only copy of the apocalyptic app in question.

Well, this is bad news for our girl (one wonders at what point she will start to be called the woman with the Dragon Tattoo, but I digress), as the police are after her for the initial theft, and the American NSA have sent an operative (LaKeith Stanfield) to get it back too. Luckily her old associate Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) is able to help out and puts her on the trail of a secret organisation of very nasty pieces of work known as the Spiders. In charge of this mob, and currently in possession of the doomsday McGuffin, is a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) with issues of her own where Salander is concerned…

‘I quite enjoyed it, but I could have done without all the anal rape,’ was the considered opinion of one of the support team after we went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in early 2012. I suspect he spoke for a significant chunk of audience, for the sheer unflinchingly bleak grimness of the movie may be one of the reasons that it under-performed at the box office. I was kind of braced for more of the same this time around, especially after the film opened with some implied child abuse and continued with the aftermath of some brutal domestic violence. Was Spider’s Web to be wall-to-wall misogynistic real-world horror?

It was not. I think the film is pulling a bit of a trick by establishing a tone not dissimilar to that of the Larssen books, and then going on to tell a story of a very different kind. The producers also appear to be playing a long game by attempting to establish Lisbeth Salander as the kind of genre character who a (potentially very long) series of films can be made about, the most obvious parallels being James Bond or perhaps Jason Bourne. Certainly the character as depicted in this film seems to be losing some of her depth and becoming slightly more cartoony, in addition to being almost absurdly omni-competent (She can hack anything! She can drive anything! It takes three burly men to subdue her in a fight!).

The Bourne franchise is probably the best parallel to what The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like to watch: you have the taciturn, quietly vulnerable protagonist, who’s at much at odds with the authorities as the bad guys, you have well-staged action sequences that still manage to keep one foot in reality, and you’ve got lots of stuff with things being urgently downloaded in a crisis. And as such the film is actually pretty entertaining to watch, even if you don’t have to dig too deeply into the premise of the story to find something absurd going on.

Foy, I suppose, is okay as Salander, which is really the star part in this film (Gudnason as Blomkvist is in a very subordinate role) – it’s mostly just looking stern or stoical, depending on the requirements of the scene, but Foy is up to that. I’m not sure about the ‘Allo Sven, I got a Volvo’ accent she employs to signify she is supposedly speaking Swedish, but the film kind of obfuscates what’s going on in this area. Stanfield is reasonably good in the admittedly limited role of the token American character, but I have to say that this is not really a performance-driven film: people I’ve seen give very good turns elsewhere recently don’t make much of an impression here.

In the end, this is at its heart a very competent and polished genre movie, with a few unusually nasty moments and perhaps pretensions to be more of a character-driven drama. I have to say my expectations were not especially high, but as a thriller it is quite effective – whether or not you’re familiar with the other books or films, I would guess. Whether this will guarantee further adventures building on Larssen I’m not sure, but this one at least is entertaining enough.

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Olinka and I settled into our seats, opened a bag of chocolate eggs, and prepared to enjoy the trailers. ‘And, of course, the good thing is,’ I said, ‘that these should all be trailers for thrillers.’

‘Aren’t they always?’ said Olinka, crunching an egg.

Yes, as regular readers will be aware, Olinka’s fondness for going to the cinema is considerable, as is her nigh-on miraculous ability to watch a movie and yet not actually be aware of what genre it is. This is the woman who thought Kray twin biopic Legend was a black comedy, and that properly spooky horror movie Ghost Stories was a thriller. (She also thought that going to watch Hereditary was actually a good idea, but it would be unchivalrous to dwell on that too much.) When I suggest we go and see a film, Olinka’s first question is nearly always ‘is it a thriller?’ And the pleasant thing is that I can always answer ‘yes’, safe in the knowledge that, as far she’s concerned, it probably will be.

This time we got the previews for The Favourite, Glass, Robin Hood, and The Girl in the Lucrative Franchise, only the last of which I would honestly describe as a proper thriller, but there you go, you can never be sure these days. I think I’ve observed in the past that films that don’t fit easily into genre categories tend to have more diverse trailers running in front of them, and the fact is that the film we had gone to see is a curious mixture of genre movie and very serious drama: I speak of Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (no, the other one). It was the thriller element that I expected Olinka to enjoy, but this is also a female-led movie and I felt sure she’d appreciate that bit, too.

widows

The film is set in present-day Chicago. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlins, a former teacher married to Harry (Liam Neeson), who is a professional criminal (this might seem like a rather unlikely relationship for all sorts of reasons, but the actors and script are good enough to sell it to the viewer). However, no sooner has the movie got underway than we are plunged into the midst of Harry’s latest enterprise, which is going horribly awry. The robbery at least is quite successful, but then the crew are pursued by the police, there is a hail of bullets, an explosion, and a fireball. Veronica and the wives of the other robbers are now, well, widows.

This would be stressful enough in the normal way of things, but it gets worse: it turned out that in the fateful job-gone-wrong, Harry and the others stole two million dollars from another criminal, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning has decided to go legit, or at least become a better class of criminal, by going into politics, and is currently locked in a bad-tempered electoral race with establishment candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning needs the money back in order to fund his campaign, and is not about to let the fact it all got incinerated incline him to let Veronica off the hook. She has a month to raise the cash or it will go very much the worse for her.

However, Veronica finds herself the recipient of a rather unusual bequest from her late husband: a notebook containing the plans for his next heist, which would have netted him five million dollars. Rather than just selling the plans to Manning, Veronica decides that on this occasion, sisters are going to do it for themselves, and recruits two of her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to help her execute the job…

This is, I would argue, the other Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date, and looks every inch the slick Hollywood thriller. Nevertheless, this started life as a six-part drama on British TV thirty-five years ago: just goes to show that sometimes these things spend a while coming to fruition, I suppose (I’m sure I heard somewhere that Ann Mitchell, star of the TV version, has a walk-on part at one point in the movie, but I didn’t spot her).

Original writer Lynda La Plante gets a credit but you could be forgiven for assuming this had been written for the American screen by McQueen and collaborator Gillian Flynn (yup, the one from Gone Girl). La Plante’s plot survives essentially intact, but the idiom is wholly American, as are the social issues McQueen chooses to explore in the course of the film.

Given that McQueen’s last film was essentially 134 minutes of factually-inspired historical misery, you may not be totally surprised to learn that his version of Widows does not shy away from the darker side of life. Quite the opposite: this is a film set in a thoroughly, horribly corrupt and nihilistic world where virtually everyone seems to have given up hope and abandoned any principles they ever held. It is all about getting ahead and staying there: at one point, the mother of one of the widows basically encourages her daughter to become a call girl, as this is apparently a fairly agreeable way of earning a living. Racism, political corruption, and police brutality all feature in the plot to some degree or other.

That said, this is still a very absorbing film, helped by the fact it has a smart, intelligent script and an excellent cast – quite apart from the people I’ve already mentioned, it has Robert Duvall as Farrell’s repugnant father and Daniel Kaluuya as Manning’s brother, both of whom are very good (Kaluuya is kind of playing the unpredictable-psycho-killer-brother stock character, but manages to find some new things to do with it). And it’s not even as if it’s totally bereft of lighter moments – at one point the widows realise they’re going to need an extra pair of hands to complete the robbery, and (in the absence of anyone else remotely qualified), end up recruiting Rodriguez’s babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) to complete the team.

On the other hand, it does almost feel as if the film itself gets rather absorbed in the world of its story, rather than the heist narrative. There are a lot of characters, and the plot is inclined to sprawl somewhat (even so, not all of the widows are developed as individuals to anything like the same extent, with Michelle Rodriguez being notably less well served than Elizabeth Debicki).

I was slightly surprised when Olinka, a couple of hours in, emitted a great sigh and asked (of no-one in particular) ‘Is this film ever going to end?’ – but in retrospect I can kind of see where she was coming from. If there is a flaw in Widows, it is that this is a film with an awful lot of middle, most of which seems to have been taken as an advance on the end: the actual climactic heist does eventually materialise, but it feels like a bit of an afterthought – curiously under-developed and not really as tightly written or directed as you would expect. It is as if the more dramatic, social-commentary elements of the movie have staged a sort of coup against the heist plotline which it started with.

I am slightly saddened to have to report that, despite it still more-or-less functioning as a thriller, Olinka was less than fulsome in her praise for Widows as we left the cinema. Personally, I enjoyed the performances and the script enough for the issues with the central plotline not to be a particular issue for me. This is the kind of grown-up, quality movie which usually does very well with both critics and audiences – I’m virtually certain it will be more of a popular success than the other Steve McQueen’s last film; the question is whether it can achieve the same kind of critical triumph as well. Whatever the answer proves to be, this is a solid, intelligent movie.

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Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (I am going to stick with the American English spelling, even though it does make my teeth itch somewhat) is not a film I would necessarily have chosen to watch, even during the bacchanal of cinema-going which I am currently enjoying after an enforced one month drought. There’s no particular reason for that, but – and I do have to remind even friends of this sometimes – I don’t go to see absolutely everything, even when I’m at a loose end. Then again, there I was: all proper work done and dusted by noon, having agreed to go and see another movie with a friend in the early evening, and with a fairly sizeable space in my schedule until then. To be perfectly honest my first choice of movie-to-fill-the-gap would probably have been Mile 22, but it had finished the previous day (lots of big new movies starting today), and Feig’s film seemed like the best option.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a cheery, upbeat, perky, fluffy, home-oriented single mother whose life revolves around recipes, her son, and her vlog (which heavily features recipes and parenting tips). She is quite terrifyingly wholesome, upbeat and proactive, but is there something missing from her own lifestyle? Just what does she secretly aspire to? Well, the barest suggestion of an answer comes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mum from her son’s school. Emily appears to be everything that Stephanie is not: elegant, sophisticated, a bit of a hedonistic rebel. The two women become unlikely friends, despite some occasional signs of odd behaviour on Emily’s part.

Then one day Emily asks Stephanie for a favour (Hah! Take that, American English!) – will she collect her son from school? Stephanie happily obliges, but then Emily fails to get in touch, and vanishes, apparently without a trace. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) doesn’t have a clue where she’s gone, and nor do her employers, and so the police are called. Soon everyone is beginning to fear the worst, and Stephanie and Sean find themselves drawn closer together in their shared grief. But is everything quite as it seems…?

It’s always a slightly curious thing when you find someone apparently trying to get out of their comfort zone and do something genuinely new and different, and from a certain angle this is what Paul Feig appears to be doing with this film. Feig, as you may or may not be aware, is best known as the director and occasional writer of comedy films, most frequently starring Melissa McCarthy: he’s the guy who did Bridesmaids, and also Spy and the All-Female Ghostbusters remake. So for him to be directing what looks on paper to be like a fairly mainstream thriller is a bit of a departure. Then again, the film stars Anna Kendrick, who is also not really known as a dramatic actress – okay, she’s done things like The Accountant, but even then I distinctly remember being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this sort of thriller would feature someone who’s essentially a musical-comedy performer. (Blake Lively, on the other hand, isn’t primarily known for comedy. But then she seems to limit her film appearances rather strictly, so her profile in general is a bit more limited than I might have expected, and she hasn’t really been typed in the same way.)

My feeling is that comedy is much more difficult than straight drama, and so all things being equal I’d much rather watch a drama made by comedians than a comedy film made by drama specialists. The question is whether this film really is a drama made by comedians. Well, several key creative people on it are best known for comedy, as previously discussed, so that part is not really in doubt. But is it really a drama?

Well – I suppose it is, because lots of serious and often quite dark stuff goes on (Kendrick’s character has a particularly off-kilter element to her backstory), crimes are committed, unpleasant secrets come to light, and so on. The weird thing is that all the time you are laughing – not in a sustained, from-the-belly way, but nearly every scene contains a little bit of business or a snappy line or a reaction from Kendrick or so on. It may be that this is genuinely a comedy thriller, but if so then it is one of the blackest possible shade.

Then again, the fact that this is such a peculiarly and unexpectedly funny film works very much in its favour, because it works very well to give it its own distinctive identity. This is something that it definitely needs, because otherwise this tale of apparently-affluent couples with corrosive money troubles, mysterious disappearances in suburbia, Machiavellian scheming behind a domestic facade, and so on, would owe just a bit too much of an obvious debt to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and its movie adaptation.

There really did seem to me to be quite a lot of similarities between Gone Girl and A Simple Favor, but the fact that A Simple Favor doesn’t come across as being quite so thorough-goingly misanthropic, and actually contains some pretty good jokes, made me warm to it much more than its precursor. There are also signs of the film-makers being willing to admit just how implausible the story of their film is, which is always welcome (there is a joke at one point about a character writing a novel, which is apparently dismissed by other people because of its ‘far-fetched plot’).

I don’t actually mind watching movies with absurdly contrived storylines, as long as you don’t also try to tell me that this is actually a serious and mature story about deep unpleasant truths in contemporary society. Feig’s film doesn’t try to pull any of that – it’s more or less up-front about the fact that it’s a disposable piece of entertainment. This doesn’t mean that it’s a poorly made film, by any means – the performances are strong, the direction good, and the script hangs together pretty well (there are occasional slow patches). It is a little bit strange that such a dark film should also feel so upbeat and lightweight, but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Tonally odd and very derivative, but also rather entertaining.

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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‘Do you have any idea what this film is about?’ I asked Olinka as we settled into our places in a slightly rowdy city-centre theatre (having turfed out the kids who had chosen to ignore the allocated seating system and taken our spots).

‘No.’

(One of the many things I like about Olinka is that she will happily go and watch just about anything without the slightest demur, which she claims is because she simply enjoys going to the cinema with me. Hence her desire for one more trip before I disappeared for a while.)

‘Well, it’s a sort of comedy thriller.’

I was gratified to see her face light up. ‘Well, that’s good, because everything we go to see together -‘

‘- you either approach or come away from in the belief that it’s a comedy thriller, yes, I know. So I thought it would be appropriate.’

The film in question was Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, which – as the title suggests – ventures into fairly well-travelled territory as, well, not quite a spy spoof, but an espionage movie with some funny bits in it. This is one of those mid-budget genre movies for which expectations were originally quite modest, but following test screenings which apparently got ‘phenomenal’ reactions from the audience, it has been moved up to a more auspicious slot.

Mila Kunis plays Audrey, an ordinary shop assistant from Los Angeles with a slightly turbulent love life, having just been chucked by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux – if, like me, you’re one of the people who has trouble keeping track of these things, this is the dude who wrote Iron Man 2, not the prime minister of Canada). Luckily, perhaps, Mila’s slightly unhinged best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) is around to cheer her up.

But then, as the title might have led you to expect, Drew crashes back into Audrey’s life, revealing that he is in fact a CIA agent being pursued by some Bad People, and that he has hidden a top-secret spy McGuffin in the stuff he left at Audrey’s apartment! It turns out that it is Audrey’s civic duty to go to Europe and deliver the McGuffin to the Right People, or at least stop the Bad People from getting their hands on it. Morgan ends up going along as well, because it’s important to have your friends around you at moments like these…

Well, from that synopsis, you would have to say that it doesn’t sound tremendously like the premise for a hilarious comedy experience. And there is a sense in which this is true, for this is one of those films which tries its hardest to hop genres. In a way it very much reminded me of the Melinda McCarthy-Jason Statham vehicle Spy, in that the spy movie bits are played very nearly straight, with some quite graphic violence, while the funny bits could have wandered in from any commercial American comedy of recent years (which is to say that they are profane, possibly to the point of actual obscenity, and fixated on bodily fluids and so forth).

The main thing I took away from this was an increased realisation of just how formulaic American genre movies have become: with The Spy Who Dumped Me, it’s like a comedy and a thriller have been deconstructed and an entirely new film has been assembled from the key elements of both. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that this is a film with some tonal problems, as is often the case with this sort of thing – there’s something very odd about going from a moment where the main characters are beaten and tortured, into a wacky comedy bit within the same scene. Charade this is not.

On the other hand, I suppose the whole confection works as well as it does because the espionage genre (or the more escapist end of it, anyway) has become such an absurd proposition anyway. There’s a plot line in this film about the girls being hunted by a model-like eastern European gymnast turned gun-toting assassin, and while this is so outrageously silly it sounds like something out of a spoof, it’s also exactly the kind of plot element that turns up in Luc Besson movies or films like Atomic Blonde. I know I complain about the Bond franchise being stuck in ultra-glum mode at the moment, but I suppose there’s a sense in which they’re well out of the glossy, silly end of the genre. You could argue that, in a slightly clumsy way, films like Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me are trying to fill the gap left by Bond in the way they combine action and humour in a wholly preposterous context.

As an actual thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me is forgettable stuff, with a plot that barely hangs together: it’s also so stuffed with cliches that it must be intentional. As a comedy, however, it is rather more effective. It’s hard to shake the sense that Mila Kunis owes a significant element of her career to the fact she is, well, easy on the eye sockets, but she’s also quite an effective lead for this kind of light comedy. It is just unfortunate for her, then, that she has wound up sharing this film with Kate McKinnon, who is a ferociously talented comic performer.

The wacky best friend is a stock figure in this kind of film; not long ago I was fairly critical of the sub-par work done by Chelsea Handler in This Means War (a film which is almost like a weird mirror image of The Spy Who Dumped Me in some ways). Kate McKinnon is not sub-par in this film: in fact, she is so good that it almost unbalances the whole thing, as she is the person you are always wanting to see more of. She has an ability to steal scenes which almost defies belief, in addition to being able to deliver a killer one-liner and also do bizarre physical comedy. She was the funniest thing (possibly the only really funny thing) in the All-Female Ghostbusters remake; she is the funniest thing here, too. If she can find herself the right vehicle to star in in her own right, global stardom surely beckons.

I said about This Means War that it felt like a rom-com aimed at jocks, which presumably explains why it was such a lousy film. The very least that you can say about The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it feels like an action comedy genuinely made for a female audience. Naturally, this puts me out of the target audience in a fairly definitive way, but I still had a good time watching it. The supposed plot is negligible, but there’s McKinnon doing her thing, and there are also lots of very good jokes, many of them about the culture clash between the US and Europe. There’s also a typical adroit cameo from Gillian Anderson, whom it is always nice to see.

In the end we rather enjoyed this bona fide comedy thriller; we weren’t hooting and gasping and shrieking like many other members of the audience at our screening, but we had fun. It’s not what you could honestly call a great film, by any measure, nor does it really break new ground. But in terms of the odd little intersection of genres where it finds itself, it is an entertaining and quite likeable movie.

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