Friday, 6 July 2018

PODCAST RELEASE ANNOUNCEMENT

We finally have a release date for the podcast: on July 28, the James Bond Cocktail Hour will go live with FIVE episodes.


Episode One features  reviews of the book and movie that started it all: Ian Fleming's Casino Royale from 1953 and 1962's Dr No, starring Sean Connery.

The second episode is a review of 1983's Octopussy, starring everybody's favourite eyebrow, Roger Moore!

Then we go back to the origins of that movie with 1966's short story collection Octopussy & The Living Daylights.

The next episode is a double review of 2015's Spectre (starring Daniel Craig) & the 1987 novel No Deals, Mr Bond, written by John Gardener, the most prolific author of James Bond novels. 

The last episode of this batch will be a review of 2011's Carte Blanche, a one-off Bond adventure by American thriller author Jeffrey Deaver.



On 3 August, you will be getting introductions to two cinematic Bonds, starting with Pierce Brosnan in 1999's The World Is Not Enough, and Timothy Dalton in 1989's License to Kill! 


On 10 August, you shall be getting two book reviews: Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun and Raymond Benson's  Zero Minus Ten.

On 17 August, we will be going into outer space with Roger Moore in 1979's MoonrakerThis episode will be paired with our first supplemental episode, in which Hugh unveils his theory about the Bond franchise.

On 24 August, we shall conclude this onslaught with a final pair of episodes: a supplemental episode covering the 2012 documentary Everything Or Nothing about the history of James Bond, and the debut of another recurring special, our first  'Rogue Review' of non-Bond spy action: Mission: Impossible 6, starring Tom Cruise.
After that you can expect new episodes on the third Friday of every month, starting on 22 September, until the end of the year.

Den of Geek articles



Bond reviews
Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun

Moonraker

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

GoldenEye

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

AFS Screening: Only Angels Have Wings

In the port town of Barranca in South America, Geoff (Cary Grant) and the pilots of Barranca Airways are responsible for getting mail from the port into the interior. To do so, they need to get their planes through a treacherous mountain pass blighted by unpredictable weather and poor visibility.


It's a hard life, made a little harder by the airline's declining financial state: they have reached the point where one more downed plane will force it to close down forever.


On top of these professional pressures, Geoff has to contend with the arrival of two new variables: Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a young American woman who becomes infatuated with Geoff; and Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), a new hire who is infamous for leaving his engineer to die on a during a plane crash earlier in his career. What makes it worse is that MacPherson has brought his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth), Geoff's old flame...

The Howard Hawks movies I have seen, at least the ones that stick in the mind, all share one thing: a 'family' unit of men defined by a mutual code of honour and professionalism. In this respect, Only Angels Have Wings, which I saw for the first time this week, fits that description to a T.

A quintessential Howard Hawks joint, Only Angels Have Wings is based around a a group of professional airmail pilots determined to complete their runs no matter what obstacles - real or female - get in their way.
One element that always fascinates me about the visual vocabulary of studio filmmakers like Hawks is the focus on letting scenes play out in a single wide shot. The camera only moves when it has to; close-ups and cuts are used to emphasise a dramatic reveal or shift in power within a scene. It is good, solid craftsmanship, and Hawks is a great example of the style. His use of simple coverage and extended takes allow scenes to build and play out at their own pace.


Hawks was famous for rehearsing  extensively with his casts, and adding their ideas and improvisations into scenes. This is a major part of why his movies have such a sense of community and family. Scenes like Jeff and the Kid's (Thomas Mitchell) playful tussle over a coin, or Bonnie (Jean Arthur) showing Jeff up at the piano, feel spontaneous and immersive into the characters' world.
While the focus on a self-contained community of professionals with a shared code was great, I was surprised by how underwhelming the female characters were - Hawks has created several strong female characters, but I found Jean Arthur's character a little listless. She starts out outraged at Jeff's lack of emotion when a fellow flyer dies, and then in the space of a few minutes becomes infatuated with him.


It's helped by the fact that Arthur and Grant have good chemistry, but I still found her turn a little too convenient. It's clear what the intention is - Hawks is creating a world where life and death are constantly in the balance, and the nature of the flyers' work requires a level of emotional disconnect in order for them to function. Jeff is the most detached of the flyers, and his sparring with the open-hearted Bonnie becomes the main site of conflict.


Despite the movie's darkness, the movie is incredibly funny and warm. And while the movie is sold on the imagery of aerial adventures, the movie's strongest element is the interactions between the ensemble while they are grounded, waiting for the weather to clear. I love movies based around characters forced together in confined spaces, and Only Angels Have Wings is at its most exciting when it is just about the relationships - will Bonnie melt Jeff's reserve? Will the Kid avenge himself for his brother's death? Will MacPherson prove his worth? The flying sequences stand up pretty well, considering the technical limitations of the time, but they are not the reason to watch the movie -  it is probably in part thanks to those technical limitations that the movie is so dramatically sound.


Monday, 2 July 2018

The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco, 2014)

Around Los Angeles, people are preparing themselves for the annual Purge. People either barricade themselves in their homes, or arm themselves to go out into the streets to work out whatever dark urges they have been keeping bottled up all year.

One of those people is a man called 'Sergeant' (Leo Barnes). His son was killed by a drunk driver, and he intends to take vengeance against the man who ruined his life.

Of course, since it is Purge Night hose plans are immediately de-railed when he runs into a small group of people stuck out on the street. Now this unwilling chaperone is in a race against time to get these people out of harm's way - and accomplish his mission - before the Purge comes to a close...


The Purge movies are one of the more fascinating horror franchises of recent times. The original made money, but was regarded as something of a creative misfire. The general consensus was that the filmmakers created a fascinating world, but then relegated this to being the backdrop of a generic home invasion thriller.

The sequels were able to build off of its success and expand upon the premise in more interesting ways. As the series continued, it feels like it began to find a sense of righteous anger which gave its sequels a sense of relevance the original lacked. Global events like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have made the series feel like a bizzaro commentary on the state of the world.

The Purge movies have become my go-to horror franchise. I've spent years trying to get my head around the appeal of long-running franchises like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, and now I finally have my own version of that.

And what is great about the franchise thus far is that each film has some unique feature to recommend it - the original is a home invasion thriller, Anarchy is a chase movie, and Election Year is a barely veiled screed against the inequalities of the American socio-political system.

With the release of The First Purge, I went back to have a look at the instalment which gave the franchise its legs - and my personal favourite of the franchise.


Man, this movie rocks. I liked it the first time I watched it, and it just gets better and better the more times I watch it. Between the first and third movies, Anarchy stands out as the qualitative high point of the franchise. Expanding upon the premise, the story is basically a chase thriller in which a small group of people have to navigate a post-apocalyptic environment.

The appeal of The Purge is how it taps into primal urges, particularly the desire for reciprocity against wrongs, minor and major. Over the course of The Purge: Anarchy we get a cross-section of different responses: a white-collar criminal crucified for his misdeeds; Rosa's (Carmen Ejogo) neighbour's attempt sexually assault her after she has previously turned him down; a woman shoots her sister for having an affair with her husband; and then there is 'Sergeant', real name Leo Barnes (Grillo), who is seeking natural justice after the justice system failed to punish the man who killed his son.


Leo's storyline is the heart of the movie, providing the core conflict that the premise demands: will Leo follow through on his plan - thereby legitimising the Purge - or not? It's a solid dramatic line, lifted by a terrifically terse performance from Frank Grillo. As the anti-hero Leo, his character sums up the primal appeal of this series.

Grillo has a great facility for gruff minimalism that evokes the great harasses of b-movies past, but with an emotional payoff that you would never get from Bronson, Marvin or Eastwood.


As the characters trying to keep Leo on the side of the angels, Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul play Eva and Cali, a single mother and daughter who Leo rescues from a squad of mysterious goons who are rounding up people for rich families to hunt in the controlled environments of their compounds. Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez play an estranged couple who Leo and the others stumble into - while they get a great entrance, they are the least interesting part of the film and feel the most like cannon fodder.

Together they are buffeted from one bizarre set piece to the next, as DeMonaco uses his expanded canvas to show the true depravity of this near-future apocalypse. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is watching these characters slowly figure out how to survive, with whatever humanity they have slowly whittled down as the odds get more and more insurmountable.


While it is the movie that really pays off the potential of the premise, The Purge: Anarchy also fills out and expands upon the series' politics, positioning the face of the resistance as non-white and poor - here embodied by Michael K. Williams as anti-Purge activist Carmelo Johns, who uses the Purge as an opportunity to ambush the rich white people running the show.

It is easy to compare The Purge films with the work fo John Carpenter - most obviously Escape from New York (with a dollop of They Live's commentary about an upper class preying on the poor). While it is not particularly smart or satirical, in its own way The Purge: Anarchy (and more so its sequel Election Year) has a rough grasp of the frustration and terrors of modern-day America. 

Following the election of 45, The Purge's radical politics feel even more timely, and the films feel weirdly necessary. With DeMonaco ceding directorial reins to African American filmmaker Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) , for the latest entry, The First Purge, it feels like a natural evolution for a series that appears to be more invested in pursuing an overt political message. Pretty radical for a series of cheap thrillers featuring psychos in masks!

And for that, we have to thank The Purge: Anarchy. This movie proved that the franchise could work without a big star like Ethan Hawke, and as a series of self-contained stories linked solely by the concept. In this way, The Purge franchise can literally go anywhere it wants to. 

Relevant reviews

Thursday, 28 June 2018

IN THEATRES: The Incredibles 2

After defeating the Underminer, the Parr family are given an opportunity that could help pave the way for changing the laws that keep supers in the shadows...


This movie is really good: the story works fine, the action sequences are inventive and the comedy - especially a battle between Jack Jack and a raccoon is one of the funniest things I'll see this year. Brad Bird has a terrific facility for creating stories that combine the elasticity of a cartoon with the emotional resonance of great drama.
This movie is really good, and I have nothing interesting to say about it.


When I started doing reviews of new releases last year, I thought it would be a fun diversion - but after watching a lot of movies - some good, some bad, and some that leave no impression either way, I've decided to put a pin in this section of the blog.


That does not mean I will stop reviewing new movies - it just means there will be fewer of these reviews, and the ones I do write will be about movies that really get my mental gears going, which will hopefully make them more interesting to read. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

IN THEATRES: Sicario - Day of the Soldado

After a series of bombings lead the US government to designate the Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is brought in to lead the campaign. Rather direct confrontation, his plan involves fermenting distrust between the various cartels so that they begin a war with each other.

As part of his strategy, he brings in 'sicario' (hit man) Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and a team of mercenaries to kidnap the daughter (Isabela Moner) of a major cartel leader.

Though the kidnapping is a success, it becomes obvious that the situation they have instigated may be beyond their abilities to control...
 

While it lacks the almost Lovecraftian dread of its predecessor, Soldado is a fine action drama that takes the world and the key supporting players of the first film (Del Toro and Brolin) in a new story that still feels of a piece with the original.

Whereas Denis Villeneuve's film was concerned with showing the labyrinthine, enigmatic and chaotic nature of America's War on Drugs, with Emily Blunt's protagonist as the audience surrogate.

Soldado is also about innocence corrupted - the film is built around two converging plotlines: the kidnapping of Isabela (Moner); and the initiation of a young man ( Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) working as a people smuggler along the border.

While the main focus is on Graver's scheme to start a gang war, the film is ultimately about the cycle of violence, and the recruitment of new soldado (soldiers) to carry on the bloodshed. This is encapsulated at the end of the movie, which features a pair of scenes in which our protagonists are forced to confront their own mirror images - seated opposite post-rescue, dead-eyed Isabela, Graver finds he is unable to maintain his own basilisk stare; meanwhile Alejandro meets with the former people smuggler, who wants to become a 'sicario'. 

Repeated references are made to Graver's past 'success' in the Middle East, and how the goal is to turn the cartels' turf into 'Afghanistan'. There is a dark joke in aligning one failed conflict (the War on Terror) to another (the War on Drugs), and this sense of context gives the film a sense of foreshadowing, as the viewer waits for the protagonists' plan to fall apart. 


One element of the original Sicario that returns here is the disjunction between narrative resolution and plot resolution. In typical action films, the resolution of the external conflict mirrors a personal resolution for the protagonist. It's an essential part of the catharsis we get from watching most action-driven narratives. Both Sicario and Soldado feature the main character accomplishing a specific goal that does not lead to a restoration of equilibrium in the diegesis; in the original, Alejandro kills the head of the cartel and his entire family, yet the movie does not signal any broader geopolitical shift. Life goes on, along with the violence. 

In Soldado, this central action sequence takes place about halfway through the movie, when Graver, Alejandro and their team are ambushed by Mexican police while trying to bring the girl back to Mexico. Though their adversaries are killed, the girl and Alejandro are left behind in the desert, while the government terminates Graver's campaign due to the broader political repercussions of a US strike team killing Mexican cops in Mexico. In the world of Soldado, action is not so much propulsive as it is retroactive, destroying any sense of order or sense of direction.

There are no rules in this movie's universe, and no way to adapt fully to them. All you can hope for is to survive.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

IN THEATRES: Hereditary

When her secretive, controlling mother dies, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to move on. Her relationship with her mother was - at best - strained; the rest of her family are dead, due to mental illness and (it is implied) her mother's manipulative nature.

But then events take a turn for the worst: her mother's grave is desecrated; her daughter Charlie dies in freak accident. Annie is at the end of her rope - until she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), another woman dealing with loss whom she meets at a support group.

Joan has found a way to deal with her grief, and presents Annie with an opportunity that might be the key to bringing the whole family back together...


Horror is a genre where you can really see the director's stamp. For the first two thirds of Hereditary I was hyper-sensitive to the choices that writer-director Ari Aster was making, in terms of shot selection, the sound design and space within the frame - I felt like I was stuck in a vice.

This is not a criticism - there is nothing wrong with being aware of technique, only when it is not used well, or as an attempt to cover up a deficiency in terms of performance or narrative function. Hereditary works on a technical level - I have not felt this unsafe in a studio horror film, at least in terms of  recent cinema releases.

What do I mean by that?

We are in an interesting time for horror on the mainstream stage. Horror is usually treated like a dirty secret - John Carpenter has a famous quote where he equates being designated a 'horror' filmmaker with being a pornographer. Nowadays, with the consistent box office success and critical acclaim of Blumhouse and films like The Conjuring and last year's Get Out, there are a lot of think pieces throwing around the idea of 'elevated horror', as though the genre is evolving out of something bad or low-rent. Or pundits go for the old tactic of trying to strip the horror tag off a film.

Horror, like comedy, is based on primal emotions. That is why its popularity with audiences remains consistent, while its critical fortunes are more complicated. There is an overriding sense that because it deals with visceral emotional responses it is somehow lesser as a form of artistic expression. 

Hereditary works because it engages with those primal responses on a universal emotional site: the family unit.

It also deals with has the intelligence to engage with familial taboos - not only the death of a child, but how the traumas of one generation can be passed on to the next, and the ultimate horror of recognising that parents can be fallible or malignant.

I have a theory that the film's success in exploring these ideas is the reason why a segment of the audience dislikes the film's final turn into the supernatural. Demons and headless corpses are familiar horror tropes - they are easy to grasp, and to dismiss, as fantasy.

You cannot do that with family crises, which are real, complex and hard to resolve. They are also universal - whoever you are, whatever familial unit or relationship you are involved in, the fear of losing trust in someone you care for is something that we all at least contemplate.

And what makes Hereditary work so well is that it has such a firm, unflinching grip on that fear - not of ghosts or witches, but hearing a parent tell their child that they never wanted them; or a spouse believing their other half has lost their mind, and can no longer be trusted.

Because those things are truly terrifying.

Monday, 25 June 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

In the middle of World War 2, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) feels trapped on the sidelines. Ruled unfit to serve because he cannot pass the physical, Steve refuses to let this setback prevent him from doing his part. Impressed by his determination and humility, a mysterious scientist (Stanley Tucci) offers him an opportunity to finally achieve his dream...

If you had asked me any time before 2011 that I would become a fan of a Captain America movie, I would never have believed you. I could never get around the irony of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed superman fighting against a regime based around idealising blonde-haired, blue-eyed supermen.

This movie is the perfect example of how a film can rise above its flaws to become something special. Because when you take a closer look at The First Avenger, there are some aspects where it drops the ball - the middle act is basically a collection of similar-looking action sequences; the villainous Red Skull is a bit of a cartoon, the third act is rote and completely short-changes itself in order to set up the next Marvel movie. And while it looks great, there is something vaguely televisual about the production that makes it feel like an expensive pilot for a Captain America TV show.

But what saves this movie is what it gets right, and that vital element is the character of Steve Rogers. You can mess up a lot of things in an action movie, but if you get the characters right, and make them people worth investing in, it can be the deciding factor in making a movie worth watching.


Steve Rogers is an ordinary guy who does not like bullies, and tries to stand up whenever he meets them - no matter how many times they knock him down. It would be easy to take a character like this, and try to make a joke out of his earnestness, or ala Man of Steel, try to complicate his motivations to make him 'gritty' and 'dark'. But director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (with some help from an un-credited Joss Whedon) avoid both of these pitfalls, investing time in showing Rogers' determination to overcome any obstacle that stands in his way. 

What is great about Rogers is that his determination is not that of your garden variety action hero. He is never portrayed as a macho individualist, and he is not particularly nationalistic. His desire to enlist is not rooted in patriotism per se, or gung-ho about the military. He is just a good man who knows what it is like to be marginalised, and wants to fight injustice wherever it exists - whether that is a hulking bully at a movie theatre, or Nazis.

By contrast, Steve Rogers is defined by a desire to help other people, but and to be accepted by the rest of the community. There is a sense of egalitarianism to his character that is not usually associated with action heroes. In the training sequence, his split-second decision to jump on a grenade, is not based on self-glorification, but a desire to protect the people around him. It is also the action which convinces the military brass that he is the candidate to test Erksine's serum on.

This leads to my favourite scene in the movie.


Steve's final meeting with Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is the keystone to the character and the movie. Erskine explains the reason why w short asthmatic was chosen over a trained soldier. Because Rogers has never had power, he knows the importance of it and how it is used.

It is the thesis of the movie, and carries through the rest of the movie. When Erskine is fatally injured and taps Steve on the chest, he is basically transferring his belief in Rogers to be a 'good man'. Steve gets to exercise that when he goes AWOL to rescue POWs from a prison camp.



The other noteworthy element of the movie is Steve's relationship with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), which builds well from a rapport based on shared lack of status. Considering how poorly romantic subplots are handled in action movies - see Thor - the focus on a slow-burn attraction was probably a wise choice. Their understated dynamic works well, and gives the film's conclusion more poignancy than it would have (especially considering the final scene).  

        In terms of other highlights, while the second act is a bit rote, it is enlivened considerably by the brilliantly meta 'The Star Spangled Man' musical number. It's basically the origin for the 'Captain America' moniker and his costume, but it never feels shoe-horned. It's also extremely catchy.
          Still on the musical side of things, composer Alan Silvestri deserves all the cred for coming up with a genuinely memorable theme for its title character.
          Captain America: The First Avenger may not be as good as its sequels, but for me it has something those movies strive for, but never quite attain: heart.