Tuesday, 27 October 2015

SPECTRE

Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux
Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Director: Sam Mendes

The 24th "official" James Bond movie sees the suave British secret agent on the trail of a sinister organisation responsible for a series of deadly attacks across the globe. All roads seem to lead to a shadowy figure by the name of Franz Oberhauser (Waltz) and Bond embarks on his usual continent-hopping antics to track down his target. Meanwhile, back at home, Bond's boss M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling to save the "00" programme which is under threat from the proposed implementation of an all-seeing, state-of-the-art computerised surveillance system which intends to replace agents in the field...

SPECTRE is wildly uneven, a curious mix of flashy, big-budget action and tedious, lumpen exposition (more of the latter, I'm sorry to say) which feels like the product of too many fingers in the franchise's attractively-packaged pie. It wants to be all things to all people, a shamelessly entertaining pulp thriller but also having something deeper to say about how information is gathered and used (and abused). Whilst I applaud the intention to mix old-fashioned spy thriller with an up-to-date techno paranoia drama the end result is somewhat schizophrenic - two rather different films working against each other and as such the coherence of the piece isn't always what it should be.

And yet it all begins so well - so jaw-droppingly well - with a beautiful, clever, extended tracking shot following Bond through the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, stunning female companion in tow. Of course, 007 isn't there to take in the sights, he's on the trail of a nasty bit of work by the name of Sciarra. This inevitably leads to a confrontation and an opening action sequence which ranks right up there amongst the best of the entire series with gunplay, explosions, collapsing buildings, a chase and then a dizzying fight which takes place both inside and outside a looping and twirling helicopter. It's the only time you'll ever be glad to hear Sam Smith's teeth-grindingly dreadful Bond theme because you're given a chance to catch your breath.

Unfortunately the rest of the film doesn't match its superb pre-credits promise, serving up a slice of curiously retro, often clumsily-written Bond action where the bad guy not only has a secret base but is also considerate enough to take the time to explain his villainous motivation to our hero instead of just bumping him off. Still, Oberhauser, the big bad of SPECTRE, is played by the terrific Christoph Waltz which means that any lines he's given, no matter how ridiculous, are imbued with a sense of quiet, effective menace. You're in safe hands with Waltz. Or, rather, you're in unnervingly unsafe hands.

Mind you, if you think Oberhauser is an underwritten and underused character - and you'd be right - just wait until you see how thinly sketched Seydoux's character is. Dr Madeleine Swann is hardly the modern incarnation of a Bond girl - initially, to be fair, her introduction hints that she may be more than a match for her foes but then the script immediately turns her into the damsel in distress which involves her getting kidnapped, pouting a lot, wandering around in her underwear for a bit and being generally ineffective against the bad guys save for one moment when her blundering about distracts Dave Bautista's Mr Hinx just enough for 007 to get a second wind at an opportune moment mid-scrap.

Mind you, if you think Seydoux is given short shrift - and you'd be right - the shrift handed to Monica Bellucci is about the shortest piece of shrift in the history of shrift giving. Take an iconic, brilliant, talented, stunningly beautiful actress with undeniable screen presence and have her play what is more or less a glorified walk-on part. Okay, you could call into question why Bellucci was interested in the first place but the top and bottom of it is that Bond meets her, rescues her from a couple of assassins, gets a bit saucy with her, finds out something which moves the plot along a smidge and that's about your lot for La Bellucci. No, no, no, SPECTRE, that just won't do.

More successful are the plentiful nods to Bond past, with a particular leaning towards the Connery era: a bruising fight on a train recalls From Russia With Love, as does a secondary character with more than a touch of Rosa Klebb about her; the new, high-tech Aston Martin has a distinctly familiar and low-tech series of switches to control its gadgets; another very familiar type of vintage car shows up to transport them to Oberhauser's place; an iconic animal of the series makes a reappearance. The list goes on.

The regulars mostly get a decent look in this time too. Ben Whishaw's Q is thrust into the thick of the action and he gives good nerd against Craig's effortless cool. Ralph Fiennes isn't the recipient of the same batch of shrift that was chucked at Monica Bellucci earlier and is awarded the screen time necessary to give us an interesting glimpse into the character of M. He looks to be having a ball here, ultimately delivering what I think is the film's funniest line with Bond-level aplomb. Naomie Harris is engaging as Moneypenny but after her action-heavy debut in Skyfall this movie generally has her run what are essentially admin tasks for 007 - vital to the mission but no bloody good in terms of interesting character development.

It's the flashes of inspiration - plus a few choice examples of dry banter - that just about hold the interest and raise some hope that the movie will eventually get its act together but at a whopping 148 minutes in length SPECTRE is too ponderous for its own good, scenes of interminable chit-chat taking the place of high-octane thrills. Even the climax doesn't get the pulse racing as it should, giving the audience a rescue mission against the clock that's lacking in any kind of suspense followed by a boat versus helicopter chase that aims for spectacular but hits the target marked "ho hum". Considering the fate of the world is on the line (as it normally is when Bond's around - if you see him, head for the hills....no, don't do that, that's where the bad guy will have built his underground lair) the movie never really convinces that the stakes are all that high.

As a fan of the Bond movies, I expected so much more of this, leaving the cinema with feelings of what could and should have been. It's nowhere near the worst of the franchise (step forward, For Your Eyes Only) but it's a very long way from the best. Given the prodigious talent both in front of and behind the camera the end product is inexplicably, frustratingly, deeply flawed. Pay attention, 007, you need to be back on your game in the 25th film.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

CRIMSON PEAK

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Writers: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) - nice touch with the surname - has been able to see ghosts since she was a child and now those visions inform her aspirations to be a writer. The business dealings of her father sees Edith's path cross with that of British Baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Chastain). It's clear that Thomas is interested in Edith - they both have an interest in the supernatural - but are his intentions driven by something more sinister?

With all of the praise heaped upon this movie from many reviewers more trusted and experienced than I, I do feel a little odd at feeling somewhat less than astounded after having viewed it. It's perhaps because Guillermo Del Toro's previous movies have set the bar so high that I couldn't manage my expectations and had already geared myself up for an astonishing, immersive, unforgettable experience. To be fair, I wasn't exactly racked with disappointment come the end credits but I was far from giddy with excitement.

Still, this is well worth seeing if only to marvel at the incredible design of the production. It's achingly beautiful to behold and I wished I could have been given a pause button to freeze the scene and take in all of the stunning detail (okay, the audience would have probably have been waiting for me outside afterwards because the film would have run for six or seven hours due to me stopping the action with annoying regularity, but...). In my opinion it's the most sumptuous visual treat of the year, hands down. Your eyes will thank you for it.

Crimson Peak also boasts a trio of performers at the top of their game. Wasikowska is a smart, engaging heroine and Hiddleston resists the temptation to chew the scenery in what could easily have been a ripe old role, instead giving us a multi-layered, sympathetic characterisation of a man whose romantic notions mean he's constantly flirting with disaster. For me, however, it's Chastain who steals the movie, hovering ominously on the periphery, a harbinger of doom with an amusing/frightening perma-glare and a cut-glass English accent. She's absolutely brilliant and I hope she had as much fun portraying Lucille as I did watching her.

So, in spite of the above, why didn't it make my heart sing as much as I desperately wanted it to? Well, for starters, it's just not scary enough as a ghost story. It's admirably light on jump scares and on occasion the apparitions are gruesomely effective but the chills are fleeting and the tension isn't allowed to build. The spooky surroundings of Allerdale Hall, the rambling, rickety ancestral pile of the Sharpes, doesn't even feature in the film for the first 45 minutes, the opening act more concerned with Thomas attempting to procure funds for his innovations in mining equipment (and, unfortunately, it isn't much more interesting than that sounds).

The plot is certainly of the old-fashioned type, relying on discoveries of documents and artefacts that any villain worth their salt would have disposed of immediately after their dastardly crimes had been committed. I did get a feeling this this all-too-obvious exposition was a clever smoke and mirrors ploy, diverting my attention away from the real facts, culminating a rug-pulling reveal which would leave me wondering why I hadn't seen what was right in front of me. But no, I had seen what was right in front of me. There is no twist. The evil comes from exactly where you think and the motive for all of this is either refreshingly straightforward or irritatingly lacking in complexity depending on your viewpoint. It's an open and shut case, guv.

Crimson Peak works much better as a lavish, romantic, Gothic melodrama than it does as a creepy, chair-arm wrecking haunted house tale. There is much to admire about it, chiefly the jaw-dropping look of the piece and a cast of talented players treating the material with a deft touch. Trouble is, there's something fundamentally lacking and considering the usual warmth of Del Toro's work the biggest shock is how cold it left me.



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Friday, 16 October 2015

REGRESSION

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis
Writer: Alejandro Amenábar
Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Based on true events, Regression opens with a father walking into a police station and being questioned about a series of horrible crimes concerning the abuse of his daughter Angela (Watson). The problem is that he has no recollection of committing these crimes and Angela is reluctant to talk, fearing the wrath of a group of Satanists with whom her father may be heavily involved....

Alejandro Amenábar's thriller is a frustrating affair, frequently hinting at potential greatness but never coming close to reaching that level. Let's start with the positives, the biggest one being Ethan Hawke. As dour, driven lead investigator Bruce Kenner - not the most sympathetic of characters, it has to be said - his performance is meticulous in its detail, he's fascinating to watch and it's disappointing that the rest of the enterprise doesn't have the same attention to its craft.

The look of the film is striking, matching the glum events of the screenplay perfectly with its dark-hued cinematography. The locations are shabby, subdued, the perfect place for evil to hide in plain sight.The regression sequences are well handled too, full of disturbing imagery and only occasionally resorting to cheap shocks for effect. There are no car chases crowbarred in for effect, no ridiculously-contrived shootouts, this is a thriller that dares to treat its audience as adults and yet it still falls far short of its ambitions.

One of this movie's problems is, very surprisingly, Emma Watson, who doesn't convince as the withdrawn, psychologically-damaged Angela. Her role in the proceedings is perhaps purposely underwritten so as to give as little away about her character as possible lest it spoil the general air of mystery but it also leaves the film fatally hamstrung and, to be fair to the actress, doesn't give Watson much to work with. Yes, we sympathise with her awful situation - who wouldn't? - but we never really connect with the character as we should.

The script is the very definition of a mixed bag, the dialogue in the police station sequences having the ring of authenticity but then lurching into tired psychobabble whenever Thewlis' academic shows up to assist with the investigation. Likewise, the initial set-up is intriguing and the clues Kenner pieces together point to a sinister conspiracy with huge ramifications for his town and beyond only for this to be completely undermined by the "twist" towards the end, which replaces the expected explosive conclusion with one which is much lower-key, far less dramatic and, dare I say, not much of a pay-off considering the careful build-up. Yes, it does subvert the usual tropes of the thriller climax but the ultimate confrontation left me deflated, not to mention scratching my head as to the plausibility of the denouement (I'm falling over myself trying not to put a spoiler in here).

Overall, Regression isn't a total disaster and there's certainly an intent by the film makers to give the audience something a little different. However, great work by Ethan Hawke aside, you won't be recalling many memories of this.


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VENDETTA

Starring: Dean Cain, Paul "The Big Show" Wight, Michael Eklund
Writer: Justin Shady
Directors: Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska

When dogged detective Mason Danvers (Cain) arrests notorious criminal Victor Abbott (Wight), he doesn't reckon upon the tricksy legal chicanery which results in Abbott being released. Being a movie bad guy, Abbott heads straight for the Danvers household and murders Mason's pregnant wife, the 'tec turning up too late to save her. So Abbott's in the slammer for the second time and this time no fancy lawyer is getting him out. Danvers, in time-honoured B-movie fashion, swears vengeance and the only way he can take down his nemesis is to get thrown into the same prison, so...

This flick doesn't so much ask the viewer to suspend disbelief as to ask it to go for a 90-minute walk and meet back up with you afterwards. It harks back to those straight-to-video movies which made for many an enjoyable VHS rental on a Friday night, when the mood was for something undemanding and entertaining that moved along at a fair old clip. The latest movie from the Soska sisters is all of these things provided you're willing to go with it. If you're expecting a complex dissection of the legal system and an examination of the deep psychological effects of embarking upon a campaign of revenge....hello? What were you thinking? This is going to drive you batshit crazy and all you're going to do is complain. Back away from the DVD, nothing for you to see here.

For the rest of us, Vendetta's pared-down plot gets on with the business of moving from one bout of fisticuffs to the next with minimal fuss. Yes, you could drive a bus through some of the holes in the story (Danvers - an ex-cop - and Abbott are in the same prison and no one in the penal system appears to be even the tiniest bit phased by this) but believability is not this film's stock in trade. It's an excuse for our hero to thump lots of people and do what a man's gotta do, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of the prison's head honcho Warden Snyder (Eklund, putting in a pleasingly weaselly turn as he attempts to play everyone off against each other for his own benefit).

American Mary directors Jen and Sylvia Soska prove here that they can turn their hands to different genres without missing a beat, switching from their usual horror home to action thriller with ease and managing to elevate what is essentially a join-the-dots tale with some surprisingly effective moments. The lead-up to Abbott's attack on Mason's wife has a surprising amount of dread, coupled with a "will he/won't he get there in time" race for Mason himself. Obviously we know he won't but the sequence is no less tense because of it. The attack itself is all the more powerful for having most of it take place off-camera except for one exceptionally cruel moment. It's flourishes such as these which show that, even with a script that slavishly adheres to convention, the Soskas are a directorial duo with talent to burn.

As for the performances, it's nice to see a weightier Dean Cain make a decent fist (sorry about the pun) of being a badass and Wight is there to supply menacing looks, threatening lines and smackdowns - all of which he does pretty well. It's also good to see that Cain doesn't suddenly gain the strength of Superman (yeah, sorry again, I couldn't resist that) in order to knock seven bells out of Wight. In fact, it's Wight's hulking villain who clearly has the upper hand in a straight scrap between them and Cain's character has to employ other means if he's to overcome his foe.

So, is this the best prison action movie ever made? Well, no - the all-too-straightforward screenplay doesn't throw in nearly enough twists and turns. However, with the Soskas at the helm it's a fun ride, with its fair share of bloody and brutal moments (although it's relatively restrained compared to American Mary) and plentiful action set-pieces. Suffice to say, not many of the cast makes it to the closing credits. Crack open a beer, switch your brain to neutral, settle down and enjoy. As for the genre-hopping Jen and Sylvia, no type of movie should be off-limits to them. Personally, I'd love to see what the Twisted Twins could do with a romcom...


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