Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Heaven knows there are enough reasons to be alarmed by the state of the modern world, but this can manifest in some unexpected ways. ‘This is the death of cinema! We’re talking about a major director, here! Black Panther showing on three screens, and Peter Rabbit! It’s just commercial slop everywhere! Stock, Aitken and Waterman! I don’t believe it!’ cried a friend of mine, the cause of this outrage being the news that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was only showing at four Odeons nationwide and that we would have to go slightly further afield to see it than usual. (I hesitate to share more details of his Howard Beale-esque outburst, partly because I am not unsympathetic to the general gist of it, but mainly because he sits next to me at work and is wont to complain if he feels he’s been misrepresented on the blog.)

I have to say that for a film which at least one major cinema chain seems reluctant to touch, You Were Never Really Here attracted a decent crowd to the late-on-a-Friday-afternoon showing that we eventually strolled up to. I must admit to being slightly curious as to whether people had been drawn in because of the ostensible thriller trappings of the film, or Ramsay’s own reputation. She is not, one has to say, the most prolific of film-makers, this being only her fourth full-length movie in nearly twenty years, but she regularly gets acclaimed as one of the best film-makers working in the world today: I had almost forgotten that I saw her second film, Morvern Callar, fifteen years ago, and was rather impressed by it.

The new film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a private security operative – basically, a mercenary – with a somewhat chequered past. After concluding his current mission, Joe heads home, where he keeps an extremely low profile as he cares for his elderly mother. Soon enough, however, a new assignment comes his way: a senator’s teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has fallen into the hands of the darkest elements of the underworld, and he is commissioned to retrieve her, ideally with the maximum incidental brutality (Joe is happy to oblige with this).

Initially Joe’s planning and preparation pay off, but very soon the job goes bad on him, and he finds that not only he but those around him are in deadly peril. And beyond even this, he may now be the only one with a chance of saving the girl.

Everyone’s obvious touchstone when it comes to comparing You Were Never Really Here with other things is Taxi Driver, and you can certainly understand why – this is a dark, brutal film, driven along by an exemplary central performance. However, as you may perhaps have been able to tell from the synopsis, there’s also a sense in which – on paper at least – the actual plot of the movie sounds like the stuff of a much more routine thriller – you can imagine Luc Besson doing almost exactly the same story, probably starring Liam Neeson. For all that this is essentially an art-house movie – that’s the kind of release it seems to have received, anyway – the structure of the story is also very conventional; you can imagine all the various screenwriting gurus and writers of craft books like How to Plot Your Movie watching it and nodding approvingly, for only in its closing stages does it really depart from narrative orthodoxy.

However, if we should take only one thing away from You Were Never Really Here, it is that it’s not just about the ingredients, but the delivery – fond as I am of a good solid no-frills thriller, no-one would ever mistake Ramsay’s film for one of those. A few years ago I read a piece discussing the whole subgenre of vigilante movies, suggesting that they basically come in two flavours: one where the use of violence fixes the world, and one where the use of violence is just representative of how irretrievably broken the world is. This is only marginally a vigilante movie, but as such it definitely falls into the latter category – there is nothing thrilling or cathartic about the film’s occasional eruptions of grisly mayhem, and Ramsay does not present them in a remotely glamorous way. As Joe lumbers into action, gripping his weapon of choice (the domestic hammer, usually applied to the skull of anyone who gets in his way), your first instinct is simply to shrink down in your seat and cover your eyes, because you know that the film is not going to shy away from the awful consequences of violence. When Joe is forced to fight for his life against a gunman sent to kill him, around the midpoint of the film, this is not some set-piece demonstration of martial arts, but a blurred and confusing chaos.

It may be off-putting to some, but the film is all obviously the work of the same clear vision – aside from a couple of scenes early on, there is very little in the way of genuine exposition, just a succession of signs and implications as to what is actually happening, and what it all means. This is especially true when it comes to Joe’s own past. The film’s Wikipedia page informs the reader very breezily of who he is and where he comes from (it also fills in a few plot details which are less than clear on-screen) – it may be that the novella by Jonathan Ames, on which the film is based, is more on-the-nose about these things – but in the actual movie, this is all presented as a series of disjointed, almost nightmarish flashbacks, some of them almost subliminal.

Despite all this, you are never really in doubt about what is happening, partly due to Ramsay’s skill, but also thanks to an intensely powerful performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man who is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply messed up. Joe is more-or-less sympathetic for much of the movie, but no-one in their right mind would want to be him – and this is made clear by Phoenix’s dead-eyed stare, his aura of defeat, his almost total withdrawal from the normal world of human interaction. Phoenix’s main co-star in this movie is, in an odd way, the actual soundtrack of the film (a brilliant contribution by Jonny Greenwood), and it’s almost as if we are hearing the contents of his head – driving, percussive rock when he is going into action, a more discordant, atonal soundscape when he is at the mercy of his demons.

This is not an easy film to watch, coming from a very dark place and concluding on, at best, a finely-judged moment of ambiguity. I would honestly struggle to call it art, but it is at the very least a superbly crafted piece of art, that has something to say which it communicates with tremendous skill.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I imagine that life is not currently as easy as it might be, if you’re involved in the creation of cinema trailers. If a trailer isn’t criticised for being wildly misleading and inaccurate, and giving a wholly false impression of the film in question, then the chances are that it’s going to be given a hard time for giving away far too much information and basically spoiling the entire film. It seems like they just can’t win: unless of course it’s a film which people are already excited about, in which case most of the pressure is already off as far as the trailer is concerned. Do you trust a trailer for a film you really know nothing else about? It’s a fair question. As with most things, I try to keep an open mind.

Long-standing readers of this here blog (hello, masochists) will be aware that two of the mainstream genres you are least likely to find me settling down to watch are modern horror movies and contemporary American comedy films. And yet I found myself trundling off to watch John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s new comedy Game Night, mainly on the strength of the trailer. What can I say, it made me laugh. I have no other excuse. Finding enough funny material for a three minute trailer, of course, is considerably easier than populating a 100-minute movie with adequate jokes. So… was the trailer lying to me?

This is another one of those films about affluent and aspirational American folks bumbling into areas of society they are ill-equipped to deal with, hopefully for comic effect. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, two ferociously competitive games-loving people who cute-meet at the very start of the film, are married by the end of the opening credits, and as things get properly underway are contemplating starting a family. However, Max has, not to put too fine a point on things, motility issues, which may be a psychosomatic result of his inferiority complex when it comes to his richer and more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

Sure enough, Brooks rolls into town and joins their weekly game night, along with their other friends, soon insisting on hosting a session himself. Intent as ever on belittling his sibling, Brooks announces they will be taking part in a kind of real-life role-playing game, a bit like the one in that Michael Douglas film called, um, The Game: there will be a phoney kidnapping, various clues, and the first person to solve the ‘crime’ will win a fabulous prize. However, not all goes to plan, for just as the game is about to begin, a couple of genuine criminals burst in and actually kidnap Brooks – helped by the fact that everyone else is watching, eating tortilla chips, and making admiring comments about how realistic it all looks.

(A couple of other trailer-related observations here: firstly, most of the trailers preceding Game Night were absolutely dire. Secondly, while the trailer for Game Night makes the premise of the film absolutely clear – slightly clueless couples get mixed up in underworld escapades in the mistaken belief they’re playing a game – the film itself seems to assume you already know what’s going on. Although  this may just be the movie actually crediting the audience with some intelligence, which I suppose is possible, it’s just incredibly rare in a modern Hollywood comedy film.)

Well, anyway, Bateman and McAdams and the two other couples spring into action, all determined to win the ‘game’ by fair means or foul, whether this means actually trying to follow the trail of clues, engaging in bribery and corruption of the game-planning company, or just doing some sneaky Googling (the bane of so many quiz nights)…

I think you will agree that what we have here is a pretty good premise for a film about smug members of the affluent strata of American society (I should mention that the Irish actress and writer Sharon Horgan makes her Hollywood debut in this film, too) blundering unwittingly into danger, with hilarious results. However, it quickly becomes very obvious that sustaining this conceit for the full duration of the movie – even after a reasonably lengthy section setting everything up – is a monumentally difficult prospect and one which Mark Perez’s script rapidly begins to struggle with. There is actually something rather heroic about how hard the script works to keep the story (and, more importantly, jokes) going. In the end, though, one has to say that things have got extremely contrived and implausible by the time of the closing credits, and most of the funniest scenes are in the middle of the movie.

They are extremely funny, though: I am not a person who is especially easily moved to mirth, but there are a couple of scenes in particular in Game Night which left me weeping and breathless with laughter. The rest of it is consistently funny, too. It is all knowingly ridiculous, of course, but still very winning. A lot of this is down to the script, which is smartly and solidly constructed, squarely hitting every beat of the plot, and the rest of the credit must go to the performances. Jason Bateman is an extremely capable deadpan comic actor and he is on top form here, very nearly matched by Rachel McAdams. The rest of the cast are also very good, regardless of whether they are playing a comic role or a more serious one.

There is something tonally quite peculiar about Game Night, in that while much of the interplay between the protagonists, and indeed many of the plot developments, are totally absurd and very tongue in cheek, the comedy-thriller aspect of the story is played absolutely straight. There is some quite dark stuff going on here: that very fine actor Michael C Hall turns up as a bad guy and is absolutely terrifying, for he plays it exactly as if he was the villain in a genuine thriller. Playing it straight in a black comedy is often a reliable route to success – the example I always give is that of Herbert Lom in The Ladykillers – but off the top of my head I can’t think of another film which intentionally combines such very different styles of performance with such success.

That said, this is still a film which you’d better not think about too rigorously; for all that it is clearly the work of very bright people, and aimed at an intelligent audience, it is still deeply silly and the plot does not stand up to too much analysis. But, as I say, it is consistently entertaining, and it is a real pleasure to come across a modern comedy film which doesn’t simply devolve into people talking about their sex lives in an attempt to seem edgy and shocking.

Pop-culture references to Liam Neeson and Marvel movies probably means that Game Night is likely to confuse members of future generations who come across it, but may also mean it has a certain value as a social document of how a tiny sliver of American society entertained itself for a while in the early 21st century. In the end it is still a modern comedy film, after all, but a superior example of the type. One can only hope it does well enough for other film-makers to take a chance on following its lead and making comedy movies which are clever rather than crass, and which work hard to be funny.

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Current holder of the ‘Well, That’s Really Not At All What I Expected’ award is The Foreigner, one of those rather anonymously-titled genre movies you often find turning up direct-to-DVD or on streaming sites. My understanding is that this movie did get a theatrical release in some countries last year, which is doubtless due to the fact it has some proper stars in it – Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan – and is directed by the very capable Martin Campbell, who is arguably the director with the most consistently impressive track record in the Bond franchise. So you’re expecting a thriller, with these guys involved, but what exactly? Well, it’s clearly going to be some kind of buddy movie, isn’t it, with Chan and Brosnan possibly as superannuated spies brought unwillingly out of retirement together – Brosnan perhaps as someone a bit pompous, who’s gone respectable, and resents having to work with Chan, who comes across as a well-meaning oaf until it’s time to kick some heads in. Inevitably the two of them bond (no pun intended) through some crazy exploits, before a feel-good ending that leaves the door open for a sequel…

Amazing. Every word of what I just wrote is wrong (to coin a phrase). This is such a wholly different kettle of fish that it’s barely recognisable as a kettle of fish at all. Jackie Chan plays Quan, a single father who owns a Chinese restaurant in London (he and his family emigrated to the UK back in the 80s). His teenage daughter is his pride and joy, and so it is an appalling trauma when she is killed in a terrorist bombing just five minutes into the movie.

The bombing is claimed by the Authentic IRA, a rogue faction of the united Ireland movement, and pressure is immediately brought to bear on the political wing of the organisation to give up the men responsible for the atrocity. First in line for the squeeze is Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), who was a senior IRA man before – apparently – eschewing the way of violence. Everyone, including the media, assumes that Hennessy must know who planted the bomb, which brings him to Quan’s attention.

Everyone is a bit surprised when a fairly elderly Chinese dude turns up at Hennessy’s office in Belfast demanding to be told the names of the men responsible for murdering his daughter, but Quan is not to be dissuaded by veiled threats or fobbed off by the usual platitudes. However, their surprise turns to actual amazement when Quan sneaks off to the office toilets and fabricates a bomb out of lemonade and cigarettes, rather like a more violent MacGyver. He is clearly an aging restauranteur with a bit of a past, and he’s not going to take no for an answer…

So, yes, this is absolutely not a comedy film. Instead it is another of those Bus Pass Badass movies, this time starring everyone’s favourite Hong Kong-born knot of scar tissue in an entirely serious role. Well, I say ‘entirely serious’, but the film does require you to accept that Quan – who it turns out had some kind of special forces background during the Vietnam War – has kept up with his training over the last forty years. It’s a fairly big ask, but not an unreasonable one, as seeing Chan do his stuff is partly why you’re watching the movie in the first place. The film is, shall we say, carefully constructed so that Chan does not have to participate in a great many complex dialogue scenes in English, but his performance as a man who has basically had his emotions ripped away by an inconceivable tragedy is entirely believeable.

Also operating very much against type is Pierce Brosnan. Now, it may be that one of the reasons why this film didn’t get a theatrical UK release is that it ventures into some slightly ticklish areas – I don’t just mean the fact that this is essentially a fairly lightweight thriller which features multiple bombs going off in public areas, either (I’m never very comfortable when terrorist atrocities are treated as the stuff of genre entertainment, but maybe that’s just me). Brosnan’s choice of beard, glasses, and accent makes it pretty clear that his character is intended to be a kind of roman a clef version of the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and one suspects that lawyers had an interesting time ensuring this movie was not actionable – there are numerous mentions of the IRA throughout, but references to Sinn Fein itself are much less frequent and oblique.

Once you get your head around all this, though, Brosnan also gives a perfectly good performance in a somewhat tricky role – Chan is obviously the good guy in this movie, but Brosnan is playing a much more ambiguous figure, whose exact role in the plot is not immediately clear. The two of them have very little screen time together, though, which is a bit of a shame.

In fact, this rather feels like two quite different films which have been spliced together – there’s a morally ambiguous political thriller about Ulster politics and the connections between politicians and the men of violence, starring Brosnan, and then there’s a much more straightforward action movie with Chan in the lead role. I have to say I would have appreciated perhaps a little more of the latter, for the action sequences are where The Foreigner really comes to life – the film is puttering along engagingly enough in its opening section, then a bunch of IRA heavies turn up to Quan’s B&B to run him out of town, and suddenly we’re into a proper Jackie Chan action sequence with people flying out of windows and tumbling down flights of stairs. It’s a little more restrained and has a harder edge to it than you might expect, but it’s still exhilarating stuff.

In the end, though, this is still quite a dark film – apart from Quan, there are no significant good guys, and the British authorities are depicted as every bit as ruthless as their terrorist counterparts (we see prisoners tortured and executed). At the conclusion, there is a definite sense of closure, but not really that of a happy ending – the dead stay dead, no matter what, and no-one has come out of these events unscathed and untainted. It’s an unusual and downbeat note on which to end, but one entirely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie. This is a pretty decent thriller, once you get past the apparently peculiar casting choices for the two lead roles, and the two stars deserve credit for trying something different and working so hard to ensure it succeeds as much as it does.

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It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-related at all – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.

Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.

Liam Neeson even makes running to catch the train look macho.

Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.

Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…

Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.

Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.

He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.

And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.

It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.

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A couple of months ago I was out and about squiring a beautiful young lady around town (stand down, it’s not what you think) when we found ourselves in the balcony of the cinema about to watch Murder on the Orient Express. After I had issued the usual instruction for her to behave herself in the dark, we found ourselves watching the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, prominently featuring Kevin Spacey in a key role. ‘That,’ I predicted, ‘is going to have problems,’ for the initial allegations of misconduct against Spacey were already in general circulation.

The very next day I switched on my laptop to discover that reshoots were already in progress, and that Spacey’s performance was being excised from the film and replaced by one from Christopher Plummer – just one more element in a career which is enjoying a virtually Christopher Lee-esque Indian Summer. I suppose that in the end this is a very shrewd decision on the part of Scott and the other producers – they get to look like they’re taking a stand against abusive behaviour, there’s no risk of the film being boycotted by outraged activists, and it is another source of publicity for the film, which is always welcome, after all. (Yes, I know, I’m a cynical old beast.)

Having said that, I wonder if Plummer is also under retainer to film new versions of Spacey’s scenes  from American Beauty? Or is that more in Ben Affleck’s line nowadays? It’s the logical next step, surely, and the technology is very nearly there. Who’s going to replace Spacey in The Usual Suspects? Or Seven? Or Superman Returns? I must confess that this updated version of damnatio memoriae (for this is surely really what we’re on the verge of) leaves me a little uneasy. I can’t help thinking that in the end this is all still really just about the bottom line.

On the other hand, this is a very appropriate sentiment for a film like All the Money in the World, a retelling of the true story of the Getty kidnapping case of 1973, something so jam packed with grotesque and garish twists that I’m rather surprised it’s never been the subject of a high-profile movie before.

The movie doesn’t hang about and opens with the kidnapping in Rome of Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer – no relation), sixteen year old grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty (Plummer, currently at least). At this point in history, Getty Senior was not just the richest man in the world, but the richest man in the history of the world, famously single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and quite staggeringly tight-fisted – the movie suggests he washed his own socks in hotels to avoid paying the laundry, and installed a payphone in his home so his guests could make personal calls while visiting him. (He also appears to have believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian.)  Paul Jr’s mother Abigail (Michelle Williams, who’s having a busy time of it currently) goes to her father-in-law for the ransom money the kidnappers are demanding, expecting him – as you would – to be sympathetic to the plight of his favourite grandchild, especially given he has – wait for it – all the money in the world.

But no. Getty refuses to pay – it’s not quite a case of it being not the money but the principle, as the principle involved is his never giving any money away if he can help it. Paying Paul Jr’s ransom will just encourage people to go about kidnapping his other thirteen grandchildren and making inroads into his personal fortune. No cash. All he can offer are the services of his security operative Fletcher Chase (Marky Mark Wahlberg), whom he instructs to investigate the case and retrieve Paul Jr intact, if possible, with the minimum possible outlay of funds…

As I say, what follows is a fascinating and at times barely credible tale, which initially seems like a race to the bottom between the kidnappers and the Italian police as they compete to be the most inept and cack-handed. That said, I found a rather queasy sense of tension persisted, because there was one thing I did know about the Getty kidnapping – the criminals’ threat to return the boy to his family in installments, via the postal service. What I suppose we must call the film’s Reservoir Dogs moment duly arrives, and is possibly not quite as grisly as it feels, but it’s still certainly not one for the squeamish.

Then again, there’s a sense in which the film is all about a certain kind of brutality, that of people who believe that every single thing has a price tag on it (the insights into the deeply dysfunctional Getty coterie suggest it’s also saying something about how having too much money really screws you up). Principally these are Getty himself and the kidnappers, both of whom have very strong ideas about what Paul Jr’s freedom is worth. Caught in the middle is Abigail Getty, whose problems mainly arise from the fact that nobody believes that a member of the world’s richest family doesn’t have access to any funds. Williams is very good in the role, which still feels a little bit underwritten – the same could really be said of Wahlberg, who gets a nice moment of moral outrage near the end but mostly just stands around looking stern. Also caught in the middle and making a rather good impression is Romain Duris as a kidnapper with a conscience, who almost becomes Paul Jr’s protector against the more brutal parties who become involved.

All this said, however, the person most likely to come away from All the Money in the World with a gong is Christopher Plummer. It is, I suspect, a source of considerable relief to Ridley Scott that most of the scenes featuring Getty take place indoors with a handful of other characters, thus keeping the cost of replacing them down (in the film’s only big location sequence featuring the character, Spacey apparently still appears in the wide shot) – the fact that Getty plays a relatively minor role in the story has also helped them out. I have seen reports that Plummer really contributes not much more than an extended cameo, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way: he dominates the movie, even though he is absent from the screen for quite long stretches as the story unfolds.

The kidnappers remain a fairly anonymous bunch, Duris’ character excepted, and the movie definitely reserves its most severe approbation for Getty himself, for the tycoon is depicted as nothing less than an icy, ruthless monster – ‘evil’ is not an overstatement. Some of his manoeuvres towards the end of the story are quite breathtaking in their calculating selfishness. Of course, what we’re seeing here is a bunch of very rich Hollywood producers asserting how awful rich people can be, but the script and Plummer’s performance are both good enough to make you forget about this while you’re watching it.

Long-term visitors may recall that I’m not an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s work, and while I have generally warmed up to his more recent films, he’s still very capable of underwhelming me. All the Money in the World, however, is as effective and slick as the best of his films. It’s very much the Hollywood version of history – the chronology of events is outrageously tweaked to serve the story – and, I suspect, the depiction of Italy is not the sort to fill the Italian Tourist Board with delight, but this is a very engaging and well-made film. I’m not sure it says anything profound about wealth or values, but it’s still a classy piece of entertainment.

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As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…


I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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