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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of the definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind having a bit of significance about the blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of the audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctedly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. The problem is that Out of Blue fluffs the police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

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There were just under two hours left before we landed at Heathrow, which I reckoned should give me just enough time to enjoy, or not, Peter Berg’s Mile 22, a thriller starring Marky Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Marky Mark have forged a bit of a partnership in recent years, mostly doing based-on-a-real-life-disaster movies like Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, although I have to say I much prefer his earlier, sillier films like The Rundown and Hancock. My main interest in Mile 22 stemmed not from the involvement of Berg, nor indeed Wahlberg (who I find I can really take or leave as a performer), but that of Iko Uwais, a brilliant Indonesian actor and martial artist who starred in the Raid duology (he was also in one of the stellar conflict movies for about three seconds, but let’s not worry about that). Any film where Uwais gets to do his stuff has a claim on my attention, even when that film gets unfriendly (and that’s putting it charitably!) notices from legitimate film critics.

(Checking out Mile 22 on the in-flight information system, I was startled to find the entry on this movie ran something like ‘Critics have said very unkind things about Mile 22, but these are the same people who didn’t like The Greatest Showman – so why not give it a try?’ I’m all for people being encouraged to make their own minds up, but on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that The Greatest Showman is not, by any rational standard, a massive cheesy wotsit. It didn’t put me in the best of moods, anyway.)

Hey ho. Anyway, the film gets underway with some shadowy American coves, led by Marky Mark, undertaking a secret operation against – so far as I have been able to find out – some Russian spies operating on the US mainland. (This is one of those films which attempts to generate verisimilitude by having the characters rattle out their dialogue in a very terse fashion, and it’s probably not the best movie to listen to over headphones on a crowded plane, even in the wee small hours around dawn.) Things do not go as planned, but for quite a long time it is really not clear what this has to do with the rest of the plot.

This takes place in the fictitious Asian nation of Indocarr, where some radioactive terror dust has gone missing, and the American government would quite like to get it back before people start melting in the street (at least this is what it’s suggested will happen). Marky Mark, who is playing a version of that character whose brilliant brain function excuses the fact he is somewhat sociopathic, is on the job, and it is made clear to us at some length what a tough job it is keeping Uncle US of Stateside safe. Hey ho.

Anyway, up pops Iwo Uwais playing Li Noor, a rogue cop who knows where the terror dust McGuffins are to be found, but will only reveal the information if he is whisked off to the airport (35.4 kilometres away) and given political asylum in the States. The US government isn’t technically allowed to do this sort of thing under the usual international conventions, and so they activate Marky Mark and his team of plausibly deniable agents, who will theoretically be private citizens for the duration of the mission. Also on the team is Lauren Cohan, playing an agent with a challenging personal life, and Ronda Rousey, playing an agent who can clearly bench-press a lot (finely-drawn characterisation isn’t really Mile 22‘s strong point). Shouting at everyone over the radio is John Malkovich. Off they go in their SUVs, and before long an awful lot of people are shooting at them. This makes up the plot of most of the rest of the film.

Hey, you know what? The Greatest Showman is still a massive cheesy wotsit and this film isn’t much cop either. (I should point out that they are very different beasts and even if you are one of those people who thought that Hugh Jackman organising a diversity barn dance was a profoundly uplifting emotional experience, you still probably won’t enjoy Mile 22.)

I remember the critic and commentator Mark Lawson making the observation that when it really boils down to it, there are two kinds of entertainment: Escapist, which attempts to help you forget how awful the world fundamentally is, and Reminder, which grinds your face into the dismal grit of reality. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a storyteller, he suggested, is to be at all unclear on this point, or be under the impression that you’re doing one when you’re really doing the other.

This is the problem with Mile 22. It has a nice high-concept premise to it – team of guys must transport other guy they don’t particularly trust through hostile urban territory – and basically has cheesy knockabout thriller written all over it. Two prominent characters are played by performers with a martial-arts background, after all. However, after all those gravitas-laden true-life stories, it seems that Berg and Marky Mark have no real interest in doing cheesy crowd-pleasing stuff: they are Serious Film-makers now, even if they are now making a film in which Iko Uwais beats three armed opponents to death in his pants.

Thus, that high-concept premises vanishes under a slew of dour, improbable plot-twists, downbeat character bits, and general complications that just make the film less fun to watch. We’re quite a long way into Mile 22 before they start going those twenty-two miles, and the stuff before that is not especially interesting.

It has to be said that the actual twenty-two miles themselves are not much better, mainly because Berg seems to be one of those people who thinks that the secret of a great action sequence is to cut between cameras every three seconds. This is good for generating incipient nausea, but not so good when it comes to tension and excitement. Needless to say, it favours the actors over the martial artists and stuntmen – what’s the point of hiring someone like Uwais if you never show what he’s capable of doing? (That said, Iko Uwais does deliver an impressive English-language acting performance, though I’m not sure the film is watching just for this.)

In the end it is just a frustrating and depressing experience, not just because of the tone of the story, but because it feels like you’re watching people with genuine talent actively setting out to make a bad movie on purpose. And you just wonder what the point of the exercise is, unless this is all supposed to be setting up a sequel. Even if it is, I can’t imagine many people feeling sufficiently motivated to come along and check it out. This is pretty much a thorough-going dud.

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Normally nothing makes people in the film industry happier than when there is a buzz around their new movie and everyone is talking breathlessly about. Occasionally, however, something comes along which really tests that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity.

The most startling example of this in recent years was Liam Neeson’s recent performance on the press tour for his new movie Cold Pursuit, directed by Hans Petter Moland. Neeson has enjoyed something of a career resurgence in recent years playing the protagonists of action movies centred on characters who tend to be approaching pensionable age, but who don’t let this stop them going on roaring rampages of revenge. Cold Pursuit is really an addition to this odd subgenre, and (in case you’ve been on a desert island) Neeson decided to share his own experiences of the corrosive effect of the urge for vengeance, cheerfully regaling his interviewer with the story of how, following the rape of a friend by an unidentified black man, he wandered the streets of Belfast hoping to be provoked by someone of that ethnicity so he could justifiably beat them to death.

Unsurprisingly, this was not greeted as the sign of insight and mature self-awareness that Neeson clearly thought it to be, and the poo-storm of disbelieving outrage which ensued has really eclipsed Cold Pursuit‘s merits as a film, whatever they may be. However, this is still by some metric a thriller, and where there is a thriller in the cinema, you will most likely find me and Olinka, sooner or later. Is the film as dodgy as Neeson’s attempts to promote it, or is the unfair victim of its star’s poor judgement?

Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, unassuming snowplough driver in the resort town of Kehoe, Colorado, who as the film starts is a loving father and husband and recipient of the town’s Citizen of the Year award. You just know that when someone starts a film by being dull and civic-minded, they are not going to stay that way, and so it proves. Coxman’s son turns up dead of a heroin overdose and he and his wife (Laura Dern) are knocked sidewise, unable to believe they knew their child so little. Struggling to come to terms, Neeson retires to the garage to blow his own head off.

However, he is stopped by the appearance of a friend of his son who reveals he was murdered on the orders of the local drug baron, Viking (Tom Bateman). This at least gives Neeson a focus for his negative emotions and soon he is carving a swathe through the lower echelons of Viking’s organisation and hoping to get a shot at the top man. Killing drug dealers tends to come with consequences, however, and Viking and his lieutenants jump to the wrong conclusion, assuming that a rival gang of Native American drug dealers are responsible. Soon a bloody turf war is in progress and threatening to spin out of control…

A friend of mine was recently, and somewhat improbably given his image as a thoughtful and humane family man, outed as a bit of a fan of the whole Liam Neeson revenge-thriller genre, and seemed genuinely disappointed when his schedule meant that he couldn’t come to see Cold Pursuit with Olinka and me. I am not entirely sure this film would have been his cup of tea, though: the opening at least is deeply suspect, with an awful, grating uncertainty of tone – in part a dour, uncompromisingly downbeat drama about loss and grief (shades of In the Bedroom) and the couple struggling to deal with the loss of their boy, and partly a gruesome, graphically violent revenge-thriller.

In the end, however, a third style becomes dominant. This is an American remake of a Scandi drama from a few years ago, and you can still discern traces of that in the setting of the film and its humour (I was going to call it a black comedy, but in the circumstances I think it’s best to steer clear of that sort of language). Most of all it resembles a pastiche of the kind of films that the McDonagh brothers have been making in recent years, with a mixture of calculated provocation and clever subversion of genre tropes, spiced up with quirky humour and characters who refuse to be defined by their roles in the story. Thus we get a drug lord who’s obsessed with macrobiotic dieting and who gives his young son a copy of Lord of the Flies, believing it to be a valuable repository of life lessons.

There are some good jokes in Cold Pursuit, but on the whole it often feels quite laboured. Liam Neeson cheerfully sent himself up a few years ago in a sketch where he approached Ricky Gervais insisting that they work on ‘funny monologues… crazy characters… slapstick’, all delivered in that balefully intense manner, but the problem here is that he is really is playing it all much too straight and earnest. This is to some extent ameliorated by the fact that, as the situation spins out of control, he gets less screen-time, but this itself probably qualifies as another problem with the film – the script doesn’t quite hold together and contains some very cheesy bits of plotting. (The ending in particular is very abrupt and peculiar.)

In the end it’s all really very blokey, violent stuff, with a sort of motif – calling it a theme would be overdoing it – about fathers and their relationships with their sons. Most of the female characters are very secondary and don’t get much screen time; the exception being Emmy Rossum’s ambitious young cop. Rossum (who fifteen years ago looked like being on the verge of becoming a major star, but vanished into the netherworld of cable TV) gets some good scenes, but doesn’t really contribute much to the story either.

Neeson does the best he can with a character who doesn’t exactly leap off the screen; the actors playing all the comedy gangsters likewise make the most of their opportunities. But in the end, I don’t know – the film recovers well from a very dubious opening act, but in the end it feels just a bit too laborious in both its plotting and its quest to find unlikely sources of humour. I doubt people going in expectation of a Liam Neeson revenge thriller will find it very satisfactory, but then neither will anyone else: it’s a bit too self-consciously quirky given the subject matter, and it seems to have nothing really to say for itself about any of the themes and topics it touches on. Cold Pursuit is somewhat entertaining while you’re watching it, but if Neeson had kept his mouth shut on the press tour I suspect it would have vanished into obscurity fairly rapidly.

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You can’t beat a really good, really dodgy knock-off of a hit movie, especially one which is quite haphazardly thrown together in a spirit of mercenary opportunism. The various Bond pastiches of the mid sixties are the sort of thing I’m thinking of, also the Jaws rip-offs of the late seventies, not to mention the various excursions into dubious sci-fi the big studios embarked upon a couple of years later. A few years earlier, The Exorcist had gone a long way towards making the horror movie a respectable genre, something only consolidated by the success of The Omen in 1976 – to be fair, The Omen is schlock, but it’s classy, entertaining schlock.

You can’t say quite as much about Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch, which emerged in 1978 – the schlock part is certain, but the rest is highly debatable. Things get underway in a sombre London – a jumbo jet has recently crashed into a tower block, causing massive devastation, while an American space mission has also just ended in disaster. Watching all this on the telly is writer and general grumpy-boots John Morlar (Richard Burton), who seems to be expecting company in his flat. Someone does indeed turn up, but rather than share a drink with Morlar they do their best to bash his skull in.

The police are soon on the scene, led by Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), who is on an exchange visit from Paris. (The Frenchness of the character is not actually relevant to the plot, but – given this is an international co-production – highly relevant to the budget.) Morlar’s body is still in situ, but his head is hidden from the audience by a felicitously-positioned coffee table, though whether this is to spare the audience the sight of his shocking injuries or just conceal the fact that Burton has gone off on the lash and this is a different actor is another debatable point. Brunel discovers that, almost miraculously, Morlar is still alive, and he is rushed off to hospital where his head is almost entirely swathed in bandages, although not quite enough to conceal the fact that it definitely isn’t Burton in these scenes.

Brunel sets about investigating Morlar’s life, reading his journal and talking to his shrink, Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). It turns out that Morlar was a successful writer, obsessed with the notions of power and evil, but also a man who left those who met him deeply unsettled. Various people who got on the wrong side of him ended up dead in freak accidents of different kinds. It slowly becomes clear that Morlar believed he had a form of telekinesis which caused disasters (this may not have come as a great shock to the audience, considering it’s basically explained on the poster). His parents died in a freak car accident, a schoolteacher who punished him was killed in a fire, his about-to-leave-him wife was in another car crash, and so on. Given Morlar’s proximity to so many unfortunate events, the list of people with a reason to wish him harm is lengthy, but Brunel and Zonfeld have another concern – it looks like Morlar’s power is operating to keep him alive, despite injuries that should have been fatal, but is there more to this than simple self-preservation?

The presence of Remick is only the most obvious sign of the debt that The Medusa Touch owes to The Omen; this is a film that aspires to be a classy, London-set supernatural thriller, with an A-list cast, various set-piece deaths, and a plotline about an initially-sceptical establishment figure slowly coming to believe in the powers of darkness. The climax of both films concerns an attempted execution which, on the face of it, looks like an awful act of brutality; there is also a final plot twist (although in the case of The Medusa Touch, this is almost drowned in bathos).

However, The Medusa Touch is badly hobbled by a number of factors – first of all, this is clearly not as big-budget a big-budget movie as it really needs to  be, with some of the model work (crashing jets and Bristol Cathedral falling down on people’s heads) really not up to scratch. It’s also notable how many of the distinguished actors featured in the credits only turn up for a single scene or two – it seems very unlikely that Derek Jacobi or Michael Hordern worked on the film for more than a couple of days each. Even Burton, the ostensible star, only appears in flashback once the opening scene of the movie is out of the way. This peculiar structure is also arguably a problem for the film – there are nested flashbacks, which is never a good way to go, and it means that once the film makes an awkward gear-change from being an ominous mystery to a stop-the-disaster thriller, Burton never actually appears.

This is a problem, as Richard Burton’s performance is probably the main reason to watch the film. The actor is issued with various scabrous and excoriating rants to deliver against the hypocrisy and corruption he sees all around him in modern society, and despite occasionally resembling a man waiting for the pubs to open, Burton gives most of them everything he’s got. It is a textbook case of an actor’s sheer presence and charisma lifting some rather suspect material. Practically everyone else in the movie is blasted off the screen by Burton, the only one coming close to matching him is Jeremy Brett (another of the film’s one-scene wonders).

The problems with The Medusa Touch‘s script and production are rather a shame, for this is a film with an interesting idea at its heart. If this kind of baleful telekinesis were real, and operated at least partly beyond the conscious control of the one possessing it, then the results would be nightmarish: Morlar initially suggests that the power is not something under his volition, but an instinctive thing which reflexively strikes down anyone who gets on his bad side. As the film goes on, they sort of move away from this, and the indications are that Morlar is a thorough-going misanthrope deliberately striking out at the symbols of the society he despises. It also almost seems to play with the idea that some so-called precognition is nothing of the sort – people who claim to see the future are simply just subconsciously shaping the events telekinetically (a notion which was in vogue with some psychic researchers for a while). Of course, the credibility of the film rather depends on how credible you find the notion of psychic powers; the film tries to ground itself by including footage of ‘real’ telekinetics doing their thing – no Uri Geller, but they do feature the Russian psychic Nina Kulagina interfering with compasses and so on.

In the end The Medusa Touch‘s combination of big, doomy ideas and slightly ramshackle production values means it is mostly just silly, and certainly not particularly frightening. As I say, Burton is the main reason to give it time of day, but even though it is derivative, it still has an odd originality of concept and structure – ‘odd’ in a not especially distinguished way, of course, but even undistinguished oddness can still make a film watchable. As such, The Medusa Touch just about qualifies.

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

widows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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