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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

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Film studios are usually so prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any successful movie and devote themselves to making more of the same, that it almost seems churlish to be less than fully enthusiastic when someone unveils a project which is quite startling in its originality. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in with respect to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. If you are a fan of movies in which low-ranking fashionistas moonlight as ghostbusters and find themselves mixed up in the stuff of a psychological thriller, well, rejoice, for this movie is right up your street. If you are part of that inexplicable minority for whom this is not instinctively interesting, well, you might want to read on anyway, for this is still a fairly interesting project.

Kristen Stewart wafts around Paris, London, and Muscat as Maureen, personal shopper and general dogsbody for a prominent figure in the fashion industry (who’s a fairly unpleasant individual, it would appear). Several people wonder why she stays in such a difficult and unrewarding position; well, she has something else on her mind – her brother died three months earlier and the two of them made a deal. Whichever one passed on first would send a message of some kind to the other, confirming the existence of the afterlife. For Maureen, you see, has mediumistic powers, in addition to a good knowledge of couture, and spends much of her spare time hanging around gloomy old mansions harassing dead people. So when she starts to receive enigmatic text messages from someone seeming to know all about her and her life, one of the first questions that occurs to her is that of which side of the grave her stalker is on…

There is a certain class of actor who rose from near-obscurity to global celebrity extremely rapidly and at a relatively young age, and while this may have done their profile and bank balance no harm whatsoever, it creates a lens through which all their subsequent work is inevitably viewed. I’m thinking of people like Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson, and – of course – Kristen Stewart belongs to this select group as well. (Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to have slipped the net, while the career of Leonardo DiCaprio indicates there is hope for any of these people.) No matter what Stewart does, on some level she is still going to be The Twilight Girl for many people, with all the baggage that comes with this. On the other hand, I expect having a net worth of $70m makes up for a lot, and Stewart could be forgiven for either just sitting on a yacht somewhere or simply doing very commercial work. I would say that for her to lend her profile to an odd little slightly art-house film like this one is commendable, especially considering the vanity-free performance it demands of her.

Personal Shopper played at the Cannes festival, where it won the prize for best direction and was also booed by the audience, which may give you a sense of the film’s potential to divide and confuse. On paper the film sounds like some sort of odd genre mash-up, with elements of a psychological thriller and a possible ghost story intermingling, but to be honest it doesn’t so much combine genres as slosh around between them haphazardly. Most of the time it comes across as a naturalistic, ostentatiously understated character piece with Stewart buzzing around Paris on her moped, carrying out lengthy text message conversations, looking at shoes, and so on, and you think that the metaphysical elements – her fretting about the existence of the next world, the mysterious absence of word from her brother – are just part of this. She has the same congenital heart defect which killed him (and could potentially do the same to her), and you almost expect the business about spirits to be not much more than a metaphor, an expression of her existential uncertainty about life.

But then there’s a genuinely creepy sequence of Stewart wandering around a big old house in the dark, and vague shapes swirl around the edges of the frame, and abruptly she is contending with a hostile CGI spectre, and the effect is quite discombobulating – especially when the sequences like this don’t particularly seem to lead anywhere or add to the story. The thriller-storyline is somewhat less arbitrary – someone gets murdered, Stewart’s character is too close to being implicated for comfort, and what does her mysterious text friend know about it all? – but arguably gets going too late in the film and ultimately remains quite baffling and unexplained in several key details. (It may be there’s a brilliant subtext or hidden story in this film which completely passed me by; one sequence near the end is certainly very suggestive.)

Despite all this, Personal Shopper remains oddly mesmerising to watch – I glanced at my watch at one point, wondering when the plot proper would get going, only to find we were already 80 minutes into the film without my noticing it. This is partly because it’s simply quite a well-made film, and the various elements of the plot, for all that many of them are not entirely resolved, are nevertheless quite intriguing while they’re being developed. I would also say that credit should go to Kristen Stewart, who does have that indefinable quality we call Star. Her performance here, while a little mannered, is also technically meticulous, the work of someone who cares about their craft at the very least. And she pretty much has to carry the entire film – no-one else really makes much of an impression, with the possible exception of Lars Eidinger – it might be worth a small flutter on Eidinger as a potential future Bond villain, as he certainly seems to have the looks and the moves for the role.

For all that Personal Shopper sounds like a plot-driven genre movie, so much of it is oblique and ultimately unresolved that it really functions more as a mood or character piece than anything else. There are so many strangenesses and weird quirks and choices to the movie that I can fully understand why some people might find it deeply annoying, but on the other hand, the central performance is quite impressive and it is extremely watchable, in a funny sort of way. Is it actually a good movie or not? For once I can’t actually decide, but The Twilight Girl is certainly good in it.

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I remember seeing the front cover of a UK movie magazine about five years ago and being slightly amused by the strapline, which went something like ‘RoboCop! Total Recall! Starship Troopers! CLASSIC SCI-FI SPECIAL!’ (needless to say, all of those movies were supposedly being remade at the time, though one of them seems not to have made it out of development hell). Now, whether or not you consider all of them to be CLASSIC SCI-FI is really up to you (personally, I’d say that the original RoboCop is a genuinely great film, Starship Troopers a fascinating and extremely accomplished one, and Total Recall just another Hollywood mangling of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers) but what is really indisputable is that the magazine could definitely have billed itself as a PAUL VERHOEVEN SPECIAL with no grounds for argument whatsoever. And there certainly is something special about Verhoeven, though whether in a wholly positive way or not is something many people might debate.

Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood in his 40s and very nearly got typed as a science fiction movie director – he was initially in the frame to direct Revenge of the Jedi, as it was then called, but lost any chance at the gig when George Lucas actually sat down and watched one of his Dutch movies – he was concerned, Verhoeven later recalled somewhat drily, that ‘the Jedi would immediately start ****ing’. Lucas’ suspicion that Verhoeven’s muse was wont to lead him into non-family-friendly territory was arguably confirmed when the director later oversaw the notorious erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the just plain notorious Showgirls.

Things have been quiet on the Verhoeven front for a while now – no American movies since Hollow Man in 2000, a typically restrained take on the Invisible Man story (NB: irony is present), and no Dutch movies, either, since the period thriller Black Book in 2006. At the age of 78, you might have assumed he had taken to the role of Grand Old Man of Dutch Cinema and was enjoying a well-earned retirement, but you would be wrong. He has a new movie out, Elle, and I think it is fair it say it is not quite like anything he has ever done before.

Isabelle Huppert gives an astonishing and arguably very courageous performance as Michele, a businesswoman in her middle years who runs a production company making suspiciously Warcraft-esque video games. Verhoeven puts the audience on notice that they are not in for a comfortable ride by opening the movie literally seconds after Michele is the victim of a violent sexual assault by a masked intruder in her home. Neither director nor actress shy away from the sheer awfulness of this, but the first sign that this is not a conventional approach to this topic comes when she simply tidies up the wreckage and gets back to her normal routine, not bothering to even tell her friends, let alone call the police. The incident seems to have left no impression on her at all: when the lead designer at her company unveils a unpleasant piece of animation which appears violently misogynistic, Michele’s response is to complain that it just isn’t visceral enough for their target audience.

The fact of the rape looms over what otherwise would mostly seem to be a smart and sardonic comedy-drama about life in modern Paris, as Michele contends with her ex-husband taking up with a much younger new partner, her somewhat embarrassingly oversexed mother, and her useless great lump of a son (Jonas Bloquet) and his psychotic girlfriend. Everyone is very sophisticated and French – Michele herself is discreetly sleeping with her best friend’s husband, and also seems to be rather taken with her hunky married neighbour (Laurent Lafitte). C’est la vie, as I believe they sometimes say in the Netherlands.

However, the film frequently and unsettlingly shifts gears and transforms itself into a rather disturbing thriller: it soon becomes apparent that Michele’s attacker is not yet finished with her, as anonymous texts reveal he is still taking an interest in her life. Nor is she quite as indifferent as first appeared to be the case, judging from her recent purchases of pepper spray and an axe…

Your first thought might be that Paul Verhoeven has chosen to make a film in French (his first) because France is relatively close to home for him and thus a bit less of a gruelling commute than flying off to Los Angeles or New York City. This is not the case, apparently, because Verhoeven did want to make Elle in America, as an English-language movie. The movie obviously stands or falls by the central performance, and on the director’s wish-list were names like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. Apparently all of them refused to participate; neither was an American studio willing to finance the film.

You may perhaps have gleaned some inkling of just why this film had the great powers of Anglophone cinema closing their curtains and pretending to be out when Verhoeven turned up on their doorsteps with the script – the tonal shifts alone mark Elle as an unconventionally audacious movie – but, I promise you, this is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Verhoeven gleefully takes a wrecking ball to all manner of social and sexual taboos in the course of the movie. Describing Elle as hugely provocative is an understatement.

And yet he manages to get away with it, making a film which is as manifestly intelligent and deftly controlled as the best of his work. How does Verhoeven work the trick? Well, the script is viciously clever, for one thing – from the start, it is clear that Michele is not quite wired up the same way as other people, and there is a monstrous never-to-be-discussed piece of family history that has left the deepest of scars on her. On the other hand, you are distracted from wondering exactly how messed up she really is by the fact that she is always a fascinating and amusing character, if not always a completely sympathetic one. Huppert’s performance is really breathtaking; I rather suspect the fact that she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar may come to be viewed as a historic injustice. The way the movie deals en passant with issues such as the state of modern manhood, misogynist culture, and the role of religion in the world also means you are never short of food for thought.

The sophistication, dark humour, playfulness, and sheer transgressiveness of Elle has led some to suggest that there is something rather Hitchcockian about it, and I can see where they’re coming from – even though this is rather more extreme than anything Hitchcock ever made. But it also has that slight sense of misogynistic suspicion about it, the distinct feeling that women are somehow implicitly enigmatic, unpredictable creatures. That the movie also manages to be inarguably feminist, with the only characters possessing any real agency being women, is just another of its baffling achievements.

There are many things about Elle which are as impressive as anything I’ve seen in a cinema for a very long time, but I would still hesitate to recommend this film unreservedly to anyone I didn’t know well: it is just so extreme and challenging in so many different ways. One thing which I am certain of is that this doesn’t feel like the work of a man pushing 80 years old: it has the energy and appetite for mischief, the desire to challenge and cause trouble you would normally associate with a much younger artists. It almost goes without saying – but there’s an abundance of life in the old dog yet.

 

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You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The identity of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

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After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.

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Most people, if you gave them ten or fifteen million dollars for a one-off job, might very well give serious thought to never working again. Movie stars, as a general rule, are a breed apart, and this seems to apply in this area as well – having been given a truck full of cash for a job, they generally go straight on to get another truck full of cash for another high-profile job. It must just be because they love their work so much.

There are always a few exceptions, of course, people who are massively prominent for a bit and then apparently stop working, at least at the top end of the industry. Generally these are people who become so closely associated with a particular character that it may just be they can’t get interesting parts in other films. I’m thinking of the likes of Elijah Wood, and, yes, Mark Hamill, who have both opted for lower-profile roles and TV work as the basis of their post-trilogy careers. And then there’s Keanu Reeves, who’s likewise seemed like only an occasional screen presence since the end of the Matrix project, and then in some slightly questionable films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 47 Ronin).

Still, in front of the other day’s Vin Diesel crapfest, there were a bunch of trailers for other impending action movies, and one of them was headlined by Keanu, which was a pleasant surprise. The film in question is John Wick: Chapter 2. The first John Wick didn’t get much of a release in the respectable cinemas of Oxford, which I suspect is the main reason I didn’t go and see it, but my landlady turned out to have the DVD on her bookcase (rather to both our surprise). The ‘decent action movie’ itch I’d been feeling had obviously not been scratched by the xXx sequel, so I thought I’d check it out.

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The film is directed by Chad Stahelski (and, secretly, David Leitch). Keanu plays the eponymous John Wick (seems to me like he should be Jon Wick, given his intimates call him Jonathan, but whatever), a New Jersey dude struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his wife from an unspecified medical condition. This seems to have been a bit of a shock, but also not entirely unexpected, as Mrs Wick has arranged for her husband to be delivered a cute little puppy as a sort of bereavement counselling aid.

Wick is out with the puppy one day when his beautiful muscle car attracts the attention of some Russian Mafia low-lives led by Iosef (Alfie Allen, whom I can’t look at without remembering the song his sister wrote about him). He refuses to sell it to them, so – being Russian Mafia low-lives – they break into his house, beat him up, steal his car keys, and – cover granny’s eyes – kill the puppy.

Naturally, they have made an extremely serious mistake: the chop shop boss they take the car to refuses to touch it, knowing the baleful reputation of its owner. Iosef’s crime boss dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) explains it very carefully, once informed of what’s gone down: five years previously, John Wick was the baddest-assed hitman in New York City, before retiring to live a less blood-splattered life with his lovely bride. With Mrs Wick off the scene, stealing his car and killing his pet dog is probably going to provoke a response…

And so it proves, with Wick leaving a trail of slaughter and property damage in his wake as he attempts to run Iosef to ground. More for the look of the thing than out of any real paternal affection, one suspects, Viggo puts a huge bounty on Wick’s head in an attempt to save his son’s life, and soon a number of other assassins (most prominently Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) are taking an interest in proceedings…

You know, on one level you have to hand it to the writers of John Wick: amongst the unwritten rules of mainstream cinema, perhaps even part of the unspoken contract between film-makers and audience, is the understanding that small children are not going to be gratuitously tortured even by implication, that old people are not going to have graphic nude scenes, and that small cute animals are effectively immortal. The whole dead dog bit seems intended to provoke a ‘they didn’t just…?’ response from the casual viewer as much as provide motivation for Keanu’s protagonist.

It’s an interesting approach but one which inevitably tips the film slightly towards bathos, as Reeves embarks on a killing spree with a body-count heading towards three figures, all in memory of his puppy. On the other hand, it does make the storyline somewhat distinctive, because apart from the ex-canine this is an extremely back-to-basics action thriller, dealing primarily in types rather than actual characters. You could swap Reeves out and replace him with Jason Statham or even Arnie or Stallone and it would not materially change the story at all.

Stylistically, however – well, Keanu Reeves does bring something all his own to this kind of role, namely that unique, rather odd presence of his. He does have charisma, and there is a definite intensity to his performance, but at the same time he’s… absent. Not quite a cipher, but curiously inert, cryptic, most of the time. (Am I just trying to find a pretentious way to excuse someone regularly accused of being one of the worst actors in cinema history? Hmmm.)

This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the performances do the job required of them, and the numerous action sequences are neatly choreographed and shot. The look of the thing is distinctively stylish too. We are very much in the realm of the action movie as Theatre of the Absurd here, of course, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The film has some wit and invention, too, positing the existence of a secret hotel just for assassins in the middle of New York, with all necessary services available. (One exchange has a blood-drenched Wick returning to the hotel – ‘How good is your laundry?’ he enquires. ‘I’m sorry to say that nobody’s that good, sir,’ comes the reply.)

John Wick is never less than competent in any department, and does have many fun moments in it, but it doesn’t really excel or innovate enough to really qualify as a great movie. It’s entertaining but in the end a little disposable – still, it’s Keanu’s best vehicle for a while, and perhaps we can hope that the sequel will have the confidence to dream a little bigger and bolder.

 

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My family have always been church-goers rather than movie-goers; I of course am the opposite, usually turning up to see new movies at the cinema sixty or seventy times a year. Nevertheless, when my father likes a movie, he really likes it, and several times in my youth I recall being sat down and commanded to watch something on the grounds that it was A Really Good Film. I must confess that on some occasions I simply bailed out long before the end (Olivier’s Henry V was just a bit too much of a stretch for a fairly young teenager, while the thing about Robert Newton in Treasure Island was… well, you see, it was on at the same time that the first Christopher Reeve Superman was on the other side), but many of these movies did indeed turn out to be Really Good.

One of these was Norman Jewison’s 1967 Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night, which I was introduced to thirty years ago and which turned up in a revival just the other day. One review of this film, written in 2005, suggested that when first made it was timely, but now it is simply timeless. Well, I’m not completely sure this film is just a comfortable period piece, but I’m probably getting ahead of myself.

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A hot night in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, and a patrolling cop finds the body of a murder victim. The dead man was planning on building a new factory in the area, providing desperately-needed jobs, but his proposal to employ white and black workers on an equal basis made him many enemies in the area. Nevertheless, local police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) adopts what appears to be his standard operating procedure – namely, arresting the likeliest subject in the area and extracting a confession by any means necessary. The recipient of this treatment on this occasion is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black man discovered at the rail station.

Very much to the embarrassment of all concerned, Tibbs turns out to be an elite homicide detective from Pennsylvania, literally just passing through. To defuse the resulting awkwardness, and basically because the plot demands it (this is permissible when it facilitates a set-up as perfect as In the Heat of the Night‘s), Virgil Tibbs’ off-screen superior basically lends him to the Sparta Police Department to help them solve the case of the murdered businessman, Neither Gillespie or Tibbs are exactly delighted about this turn of events, but Gillespie needs to find the killer if he wants to keep his job, and Tibbs finds he can’t resist the challenge of showing how much smarter he is than the chief and his squad of redneck good ol’ boys – even if his mere presence in Sparta puts his life in danger…

You can enjoy In the Heat of the Night on a number of levels – and this a hugely entertaining, richly enjoyable film – but, to be honest, the police-procedural murder-mystery element of the story is the least compelling element of it, and arguably the least well-developed, too – there’s something ever so slightly perfunctory about the way in which Tibbs, seemingly acting on not much more than a series of hunches, eventually figures out what the killing is really all about. (No spoilers, but let’s just say it has less to do with racial tension than another hot-button issue in the American culture wars.)

The thriller plotline is basically a hook on which to hang an examination of attitudes to race in the Deep South at the time the movie was made, and to a modern viewer some of the things in the movie are still quite shocking – ‘what are you doing in white man’s clothes?’ asks one minor character, upon seeing Tibbs in a suit and tie – and Tibbs is pursued by lynch-mobs at more than one point in the film. (Most of In the Heat of the Night was filmed in the rather more northerly climes of Illinois, mainly because Sidney Poitier had had a run in with the Klan during an earlier visit to a southern state and refused to spend an extended period there again. Apparently, during the production’s brief visit to the south, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, all of which just goes to show how urgent some of film’s concerns must have seemed at the time.) Tibbs is routinely called ‘boy’ or by his first name by the good people of Sparta – this of course produces the famous moment when Gillespie mockingly asks what they call him in Philadelphia and he responds ‘They call me MISTER Tibbs!’ – can’t get a motel room, can’t get served in some restaurants, and so on.

The film is always on Tibbs’ side, quite properly, but the magic of the film lies in the fact that, in his own way, Gillespie is almost as sympathetic as Tibbs. He may not be quite as talented an investigator as Tibbs, but Gillespie is still a pretty good cop who has dedicated his life to his job, for not very much reward. He’s intelligent enough to recognise his own prejudices and put them aside when necessary, and – crucially – Steiger delivers a performance with a nicely comic vein running through it. (It was Steiger who won the Oscar for Best Actor, not Poitier, who wasn’t even nominated that year despite making this film and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – perhaps a telling fact in itself.) The relationship between the laid-back Southern cop and the up-tight Northern detective – initially combative and adversarial, eventually approaching something like mutual respect, if not actual friendship – is at the heart of the film, driven by two terrific performances. (I feel quite foolish not to have noticed this earlier, but it’s surely the inspiration for the very similar pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.)

And, while the film is to some extent the story of Virgil Tibbs as a stranger in a strange land, crucial to the narrative is the fact that this is not just a film about African-Americans as the victims of racism in the South, but one about prejudice and how no-one is truly immune to its pernicious influence. Tibbs heads off down a long blind alley on his investigation, simply because he becomes fixated on collaring a wealthy, openly racist local grandee for the murder – ‘Man, you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?’ says Gillespie, gently, realising Tibbs is not immune to this particular human failing, and Poitier’s face is a mask of uncomprehending shock as he realises the chief is right. In the end, however, both men have gone beyond their prejudices, and justice has been served, though at some cost – the climax is an implicitly hopeful one.

Fast forward to today and hope is in short supply for many people, of course: the freedoms and progress that were won around the time this film was made seem as fragile and vulnerable as at any time in the intervening years, if not actually under attack by the rising powers in the United States. Sometimes it seems like you can’t turn on the TV without seeing evidence of the racial and ideological faultlines running through society, not just in the US but in many other countries too. In the Heat of the Night still has enormous power and relevance, as well as reminding us of a whole series of powerful, political films that came out of a desire to engage with and improve the world, rather than simply entertain or distract their viewers. Hopefully the capacity to make new films in the same vein is still there – but even if it isn’t, we still have classics like this. One for the ages.

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‘Looking forward to Fantastic Beasts?’ asked the minion at the sweetshop: clearly, the personality-nullification programme which all Odeon employees are required to undergo had not been fully effective in this case. I was taken by surprise, anyway: there was nothing to suggest I might be of that persuasion in my appearance, demeanour, or choice of ticket on this particular occasion (well, I mean, I’ve recently grown a beard, but it’s hardly the badger-swallowing, Dumbledore kind). It may well have been the case that the minion was just being friendly, in which case I suppose I should go back and apologise for giving him a detailed critique of my expectations of the movie, focusing on the fact that a) I could barely understand a word in the trailer I saw (and it’s not just my old ears, I wasn’t the only one) and b) the whole enterprise appears to have been forthrightly Americanised now it exists in a film-only form (patience, readers, I shall give you the full details when the movie actually emerges and I’ve seen it). I expect he was only expecting a ‘You bet!’ or ‘Not really’ rather than three minutes of closely argued whining and bibble-bobble, but I was taken by surprise and this is just how my brain seems wired to operate in its default mode.

I wouldn’t usually trouble you with this sort of thing, but it does seem at least tangentially relevant to Gavin O’Connor’s new movie The Accountant. We’re at that time of year when the films are neither tentpole blockbusters nor gong-bait, they’re just reasonably sized films gunning for people who fancy going out to see a film but aren’t especially troubled by what it is. There’s a sense in which The Accountant looks like the kind of thriller you usually see at this time of year, but it’s really something slightly more quirky and unusual.

the-accountant

Let me just explain the premise of the movie to you: Ben Affleck plays a nameless individual who has Movie Autism, which is responsible for him having incredible accountancy skills. Not immediately promising stuff for a thriller, you might think, but on top of this, Ben’s tough-lovin’ father has also had him trained to be an extremely highly skilled martial artist and sharpshooter. As the movie opens, Ben is spending his time practicing shooting things from a very long way away, auditing the books for incredibly dangerous gangsters and terrorists, and helping his neighbours with their tax returns. (Hey, don’t laugh: being totally ruthless, having no idea about how to function in civilised society, and being highly expert at fiddling the US tax system appears to qualify you for at least one very prominent job in America today, at least according to the news broadcasts I’ve caught this last week.)

I repeat: this is just the premise of the movie. If you think that sounds a bit weird, the plot itself is utterly gonzo (not to mention somewhat complicated), incorporating a senior treasury official (J.K. Simmons) and an agent he’s blackmailing into finding Ben (the agent is played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a troubled robotics tycoon (John Lithgow) and one of his employees (Anna Kendrick), and a rather more extrovert assassin on a collision course with Ben (Jon Bernthal, who seems to be experiencing something of a career sweet spot at present).

In a way it kind of reminds me of the Thai movie Chocolate (directed by Prachya Pinkaew), in which another character with Movie Autism – in this case a teenage girl – becomes an ace martial artist and batters the living daylights out of half the gangsters in Bangkok, although The Accountant works much harder to seem to be a sober and serious drama for grown-ups: its success in delaying the moment when you actually shout out loud ‘Oh come on, this is all utterly absurd!’ may be the film’s single greatest achievement.

The film initially does a little dance when it comes to specifying just what’s going on with the title character, the physician involved saying he’s not really into categorising people, but eventually Ben owns up to having a form of high-functioning autism. Hmmm. It’s still basically Movie Autism, which means that all the impairing stuff is offset by effectively having cool special faculties. It seems to me we’re currently stuck with only two approaches when it comes to dealing with autistic-spectrum-related disorders in films – this one, where being on the spectrum is presented as being almost like a superpower, or the more subdued gong-bait one, which tends to be terribly po-faced and worthy. I don’t think either is particularly useful, to be honest, but then I suppose it’s difficult to communicate the reality of being on the spectrum, which can have some benefits (being spectacularly good at Pointless) but also fairly significant lifestyle issues (inability to sustain close or long-term relationships, tendency to play 2048 for sixteen hours at a stretch, general social awkwardness, and so on). At least The Accountant has a stab at addressing some of these issues, at least in passing, and it is genuinely quite a fun film.

Long-term readers may recall that in the past I have devoted many, many, many words to making jokes about Ben Affleck’s supposedly robotic style of acting, but there’s nothing on display here to derail his career renaissance (although – well, is it totally beyond the realms of good taste to suggest that when playing someone with Movie Autism, acting slightly robotic may actually be the way to go?). The strength of The Accountant isn’t really in the plot, anyway, but in the way it presents a group of really interesting characters and lets some talented actors really do their stuff with them: Affleck is engaging, Simmons is good too, so is Bernthal, so is Lithgow… So is Anna Kendrick, too, even though this is not the kind of film you would normally expect to find her in. (However… the thing about cinema is that it usually makes everyone look tall. Even Tom Cruise looks like a strapping athlete on the big screen. So I don’t really know what to make of the fact that Anna Kendrick still looks incredibly tiny next to Ben Affleck in this film. In real life she must only be about three feet tall.)

That said, the action is well-mounted and the story stays coherent, pretty much, at least up to the beginning of the third act, at which point there’s a bizarre expo-dump and any semblence of reality is cheerily bade a fond adieu. The film becomes much less about Ben’s mad accountancy skills and much more about him repeatedly shooting people in the head with high-powered firearms. Characters and subplots basically get switched off in favour of a climax which… well, let’s just say the film’s absurdity quotient does not noticeably reduce.

Well, anyway. The Accountant may be a very odd and possibly slightly suspect film, but it’s a fun and engaging one throughout. It’s honestly not that great a thriller, but all the tangential weirdness makes it very distinctive and it is driven along by some strong performances and a smart script. Worth a look.

 

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