Friday, November 27, 2015

A few favourite albums

Here are a few albums in my rotation at the moment.

Pornograffitti, Extreme



Agit pop by way of hair metal, Extreme's second album remains their defining achievement. Sadly, this well crafted collection of funk metal and prog rock was over-shadowed by the monster success of one of its tracks, the acoustic ballad 'More Than Words'. Surprisingly dark and cynical for a former Van Halen rip-off, Pornograffitti is a concept album about finding true love in an over-commercialised world where human interaction is a marketing exercise. Through tracks like the title song, 'Decadence Dance' and 'Money (In God We Trust)' the band take a blow torch to the hypocrisy of modern day society in a way that does not feel dated (even if the music does). Taken within this context, 'More Than Words' emerges as a plea for an ideal of love that no longer exists.
Key track: The perfect start to any party, 'Get the Funk Out' is an unsung anthem that makes up for the relative cynicism of the rest of the album.

Make Time For Love, Keith Washington




Largely unknown today, I covered Washington a few years ago and I am happy to say, he's still one of my favourites. His 1991 debut is the album I keep going back to. Almost every track is a winner, Washington has a great voice, and the production is slick and lush. In today's environment of ramped up bass and dance beats, the more orchestral and expansive sound of Make Time For Love can sound dated, but the performances and songs are strong enough to merit a listen.
Key track: 'Kissing You'. It was the big hit of the album, but it still stands up as one of the best ballads of the early 90s.

Moods, Will Downing



Downing is known as the 'prince of Sophisticated Soul',  a moniker based on the way he is able to bridge the gap between jazz and old school RnB. I am little conflicted picking this album. It's not his best -- that honour goes to 1991's A Dream Fulfilled, but track to track, this is my comfort food. My favourite track of Downing's comes on his next, Invitation Only, but overall I prefer to listen to this one.  From the atmospheric opening, this the work of a craftsman, someone who has perfected their sound and is just there to entertain you. Downing's speciality is writing love songs about relationships -- he can throw out a few party tunes when he wants to, but he is better at more mature songs, like the rather poignant meditation on a failed marriage, 'Sorry, I'.  Written as a letter from a man to his wife, it is a candid reflection on the fractures that have driven the couple apart. It's basically a break up song for adults, with none of the retributive themes usually associated with this type of tune.
Key track: the cover of 'Stella by Starlight'. There is something about the production of this track which gets my juices going in a way that other covers of this standard do not.

Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye



Not as well known as his early 70s works, Here, My Dear proves that Gaye only got more interesting as he went on. This is the most emotionally exposed of his records, and is known as possibly the darkest 'soul' album ever produced. This is somewhat ironic, in light of its origins. An elaborate revenge aimed at his ex-wife Anne Gordy, Here, My Dear started life as a financial obligation: as part of their divorce settlement, Anne would receive a cut of the royalties from Gaye's next record as alimony. As sessions began, the album turned into a deeply introspective search of the soul. Over the course of the album, everything in Gaye's life is taken apart and examined -- from his ex-wife to  himself, and his approach to relationships. Composed of loose jam-like songs, the album is by turns depressing, sedate and weirdly playful. Gaye, seemingly aware of how bizarre this project is, even throws in a few in-jokes to lighten the mood (directly addressing the target of the album at the outset). It may be a little too inside for casual listeners but Gaye's meta self-immolation is worth a listen.
Key track: 'Funky Space Reincarnation'. Gaye takes a break from mulling the smouldering ruins of his marriage to indulge in a funky space fantasy in which he meets another woman who resembles Anne. Surprisingly danceable.

A Love Supreme, John Coltrane & A Kind of Blue, Miles Davies

For me, you cannot talk about one without the other. Whatever wave-length Davis was on in 1959 jibes perfectly with Trane's most celebrated work 5 years later. Plenty of words have already been written on the power of these albums. Check them out.



Thursday, November 26, 2015

A double slice of Matt Helm



Several months ago, I wrote piece on the various clones of James Bond. While researching this piece, I was introduced to several films I had never seen. While I enjoyed most of them, the one that stuck with me the most were the Matt Helm series starring Dean Martin. Not for the reasons you may think -- these movies are not good. What I found interesting was how similar the Bond and Helm franchises were in the shift from page to screen.

Both series are relatively grounded and quite dark, and the transition to the screen sees the scope and tone completely change. The key difference is by degree -- whereas the Bond franchise took several instalments to turn into campy semi-parodies, with the Helm series, this was the intention from the beginning. It's like they skipped their Connery and went full Moore from the off. 

Onto the reviews.


The Silencers (Phil Karlson, 1966)

In The Silencers, former secret agent Matt Helm is brought out of retirement for one last mission. Helm has little interest in ‘getting back to work’, but is quickly thrust into a race against time to stop a ruthless organisation from igniting World War III.  

This movie is really slow and really dull. It is obvious that no-one cared making this movie. Dean Martin certainly doesn't, but he at least seems to be having fun.

I've only read one of the Helm books, and with the way the Bond franchise has treated its source material, the digressions of The Silencers don't seem that egregious. However, as a Bond parody this is pretty weak stuff. The world-building here is extremely lazy, and Helm comes off as a weak carbon copy of Roger Moore's James Bond, with uninteresting gadgets and really unfunny one-liners. The one comedic bit which shows a degree of inspiration is Helm's inner monologue. This is conveyed in the form of song by Dean Martin. It's a small offbeat touch that stands out in the laugh-free wasteland of the movie around it.

The other major bum note is Stella Stevens as Helm’s dim bulb love interest -- she makes even the weakest Bond Girl of the same period feel like a fully developed character. Completely helpless and stupid, she adds nothing to the picture except to provide a whipping boy for Martin's sophomoric putdowns. Victor Buono is surprisingly limp as the main villain Tung Tse. He is also in the shittiest yellow face makeup I have ever seen -- they have just given him a little eyeliner and pulled his hair back. It was so bad I did not even realise he was supposed to be Asian until I read the IMDb credits to figure out what his character's name was for this review. 

If there is one bright spot, it is Tina, played by Daliah Lavi -- she adds a touch of class to the sorry proceedings and raises the temperature as a fellow agent who aids Helm out of trouble and into bed (and vice versa). She is smart and sexy, and made me wish she had managed to get into an actual Bond movie. She got close -- she was in the unofficial Casino Royale in 1967 and later played the villainess in Some Girls Do, another dire Bond parody. 

The best action moment comes extremely late. Trapped between two vehicles that are about to mash his car between them, Helm uses his superior driving skills to dodge out of the way, leaving the villains to smash into each other. This is not much, but it is a testament to how much of a snooze the rest of the film is that this one generic action beat stood out.

Overall, this movie is a real snoozer. If you like mid-60s movies and Dean Martin, you might like it, but the pacing is funereal and nothing that interesting happens.

Murderor's Row (Harry Levin, 1966)

Right from the beginning, Murderor's Row does so much to separate itself from the cinematic black hole of The Silencers -- the pacing is better, there is more action, a few funny lines and interesting plot points. It also contains several touches which were later echoed in the Roger Moore Bond movies.

Once again, Dean Martin stars as Matt Helm. After faking his death to ward off his enemies (a set piece replicated by You Only Live Twice a year later), Helm is sent off to the French Riviera to hunt down a missing scientist. Soon the plot expands to involve a laser mounted on a satellite, a henchman with a steel noggin, a gogo-dancing Ann Margaret and, most unlikely of all, Karl Malden as a madman intent on world domination. 

The movie is filled with set pieces -- car chases, fights on boats, a dance scene or three. They are all tangentially related, but who cares? In the moment they are all interesting, a feeling increased when compared with its predecessor.

Composer Lalo Schifrin makes his one and only contribution to the series, delivering a rhythmic, memorable theme for Helm that gives the character more of an identifiable signature. It's not as strong as John Barry's work on Bond or Jerry Goldsmith's work on the Derek Flint movies, but it works for this picture. Sadly, Schifrin's work would be completely ignored by the next two films.

Overall, this was a much more enjoyable viewing experience than its predecessor. It is not great, and the films which follow it fall off the cliff, but for the Helm franchise Murderer's Row represents the modest peak.

I was considering reviewing the next two Helm movies, but that would require watching them. Instead, I'll be reviewing the Derek Flint movies starring the late, great James Coburn.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Capsule book review: Big Bosoms and Square Jaws


On his bio blurb Jimmy McDonough is nicknamed a ‘literary terminator’ for his refreshingly honest approaches to his subjects. His biography on cult filmmaker Russ Meyer is no exception. Meyer, an independent director known for his films featuring leather-clad superwomen, is not the usual subject for biography.

What makes McDonough’s achievement all the more extraordinary is that he manages to get behind the public caricature Meyer presented to the world — the macho neanderthal with one eye on money and the other on his next star -- and makes you care about him.

Which is not to say that McDonough is a fanboy. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws bring new meaning to the words ‘warts-and-all’. Drawing testimony from friends, lovers and enemies (the three groups are inter-changeable), McDonough’s account manages to simultaneously offer an analysis of Meyer’s work, while sparing no punches in delving into the personal life of this strange, difficult and occasionally frightening iconoclast. The most impressive aspect of this approach is that McDonough manages to analyse his subject in a style that evokes the zany, fast-paced atmosphere of the filmmaker’s work.


Much has been written on the artistic qualities of such Meyer epics as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and his effect on film censorship, but not the man himself. McDonough does what 50 years of academia could not and deconstructs the strange, contradictory impulses which made Meyer such a unique filmmaker and individual.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Capsule book review: The Calculus Affair

This review was submitted as a contribution to a feature on underrated books. I have one more that I will be posting soon. Enjoy.


The encapsulation of Herge’s abilities as a story-teller, The Calculus Affair is the perfect blend of what makes Tintin great: A well-told story, a sense of verisimilitude, great characters, atmosphere and an ever-present sense of humour. From the surprisingly ominous opening featuring a blackout at Marlinspike during a thunder storm, this is far more adult in tone as Tintin and Haddock try to track down a kidnapped Professor Calculus in a race across Europe. Tintin and Haddock might be able to throw a punch, but they are not action heroes, and Herge goes to great pains to present them as regular people in over their heads. With the stakes raised, Tintin and Haddock are at their best here, relying on their brains to get their friend out of trouble. Returning to the world-building of earlier adventures, Herge’s interest in intensive research results in a more detailed and developed vision of the fictional countries Syldavia and Borduria. Managing a near perfect balance between suspense and humour (Haddock’s epic struggle to get rid of a piece of sticky plaster is a delight), The Calculus Affair is the work of a master at the top of his game. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Invisible cars, torture scenes and plot holes

Purvis & Wade: Bond writers in residence (1999 to present)


[I wrote most of this post pre-Spectre. See my review for my thoughts on that]

I have been trying to figure out how to write a post about these guys for ages, but I could never figure out the framework. There will be a fair amount of conjecture here because what interviews I have read with Purvis & Wade are not as illuminating on the points I want to cover as I would like.

Effectively the Bond writers in residence, they have had a hand in every Bond picture since The World Is Not Enough. In terms of longevity, they have taken the place of Richard Maibaum, the screenwriter who had a hand in most of the scripts made between 1962 and 1989. As the most crucial members of the key creative team, it is ultimately their take on Bond that has basically set the template for the character for the last 15 years.

I am going to break down this post as something of an auteur study. This will be somewhat vague, since it is hard to tell exactly which ideas are Purvis & Wade's. Their scripts have been the beneficiaries and the victims of the work of other writers, so judging their contributions will be difficult without access to the men in question. However, based on interviews with the writers, and a look at their work on the series, several recurring ideas and themes become apparent, as do their weaknesses.   

What do they bring



Purvis and Wade are on record as being big fans of Ian Fleming's original novels and have made a concerted effort to pull the films closer in line with the macabre, somewhat more sinister tone of the author's work.

Starting with TWINE, they add torture sequences and sleuthing as part of Bond's character. While not always successful, this desire to return to Fleming means there is an attempt at fleshing out Bond's character. There is also the adaptation of Fleming in ways that are more direct. While Casino Royale is a straight adaptation, this is not the first time they have adapted one of Fleming's plots. Die Another Day adapts the premise of Fleming's Moonraker while Bond's 'death' and rehabilitation at the beginning of Skyfall (including his fishmonger girlfriend) are taken fromYou Only Live Twice.

This fidelity to Fleming extends to specific sequences and even locations, such as Silva's island hideout, which was taken from Blofeld's castle in You Only Live Twice; and even the climax, much criticised though it was, is very much in line with the source material: many of Fleming's books end on a sequence in which Bond is isolated and has to protect a woman from multiple enemies with limited resources.

While all of these inspirations have not been carried off as well as could be, they are welcome to a series which has spent too much time sticking to the established formula and ignoring its origins.

Weaknesses



The presence of other writers on most of their scripts does complicate a proper analysis of Purvis and Wade's work -- The World Is Not Enough involved at least two other writers, and Quantum's script was left unfinished by the 2007-2008 Writers Strike, and had been heavily re-written by Paul Haggis (although he did not have enough time to polish his work).

This is conjecture but based on the evidence of the one Bond film they wrote alone, Die Another Day,  certain elements do stand out. First and foremost, they do not do fantasy Bond well. With all of their other entries (to varying degrees), the more outlandish material is avoided in favour of more thriller/Fleming-like elements, and DAD suffers from a creative team out of its depth.

However, even their other work betrays certain recurring problems. One thing that has come under consistent criticism is their plots. The films Purvis and Wade have worked on feature over-complicated plots involving so many double crosses and subterfuge that it is often difficult to follow and become invested in what is going on (see World Is Not Enough and Quantum of Solace for examples). Even certain parts of Skyfall, particularly in the second half of the film, make little sense and end up padding out the running time (e.g. the number of variables surrounding Silva's escape and arrival at M's government hearing is ridiculous).

Their one unqualified success, Casino Royale, works so well because Fleming's plot is so simple -- it just revolves around a card game at a single location. This allows the other elements of the story, particularly the relationships between the characters, to breathe. The fact that the contest between Bond and his nemesis is so intimate also raises the stakes.


Wade and Purvis have consistently professed their indebtedness to Fleming -- one hopes that they will take note of what worked about their one direct Fleming adaptation and use it in a future instalment.  

They are also guilty of repeating the same plot beats over and over again. Where past adventures, would start Bond being given an assignment and going out on a mission, Purvis & Wade have become locked into an increasingly tired pattern of having Bond go rogue. In attempting to avoid the Bond formula, Purvis & Wade have merely created a new one -- and just like the old formula, this one has had its day.

While it is always a good idea to strip Bond of his gizmos and force him to rely on his wits, with Purvis & Wade this can only work if Bond is on the outs with his superiors. This plot point has been over-used and needs to be dropped. Either go back to missions or find something new and different to make Bond vulnerable.

Final thoughts
While blame can be spread around (you can blame Lee Tamahori for DAD's invisible car), it is not far from the truth to state that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been inconsistent custodians of the Bond franchise. Most of their work is either bad or incredibly flawed, and Spectre did not shift that perception. The Bond franchise has not had a consistently strong voice in the script department since Richard Maibaum's death, and a change of the guard in this respect is probably needed for the series to continue.  It is easy to write to a formula, but it is difficult to do it well. The task for the Bond producers is to find writers who can juggle both tasks. While all eyes will be on the person who will next pick up Bond's Walther, it is the person or persons writing his adventures who deserve the most scrutiny. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A year of spy flicks reviewed: Spectre


Before Casino Royale came out, I was worried they were going to screw it up. Not because Pierce Brosnan was not in it and Daniel Craig was -- I was more concerned with the story. Brosnan's last movie had been terrible, and I had heard that the same writers were adapting the book, which was one of my favourites of the series. I was afraid that they would wind up clogging the movie up with ridiculous gadgets, moronic characters and terrible puns. I was afraid they would neuter what made that story great -- the relationship between James Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Somehow they managed to avoid this, and actually gave this relationship and these characters so much more in the way of depth and nuance that this aspect, more than anything else, elevated the movie far above any of its predecessors.

I love Casino Royale. It stripped out all of the ridiculous gadgets and the puns, and presented Bond as a human being who could bleed and feel. While I had enjoyed the previous films, I never related to the character of Bond (or anyone else in the series, for that matter). Casino Royale managed to develop its main characters and their relationships, while never sacrificing the things that make Bond great (beautiful locations, action, and humour). Beyond the whole Bond series, it's one of my favourite action movies, up there with Die Hard.

While I continue to like what Daniel Craig has brought to the role -- the physicality, the gravitas, the ultra-dry wit -- the movies that succeeded his debut have been hit-and-miss. There are things I like in Quantum of Solace, but I still find it kind of a chore to sit through. The action sequences are numbing, and every other scene is cut so fast it took a few viewings to tune out the tinkering and get invested in the story. While it was stylistically more my taste, with some great scenes and performances, Skyfall felt like a retreat back to formula. Going into Spectre, I was hoping that the movie would get back to the simplicity and visceral impact of Casino Royale -- with a focus on Bond the man rather than Bond the gadget-sprouting superhero.

While not a disaster, Spectre turned out to be what I was afraid Casino Royale would be -- a potentially fascinating relationship-driven story watered down by adherence to the well known formula. Let's start with what I liked (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW).

First and foremost, while it is nowhere near as strong as it could be, I enjoyed the rapport between Bond and Lea Seydoux's Madeline Swann. It was an interesting spin to have her as the daughter of one of his previous antagonists, since it gave Bond a female foil who could meet him on even terms. This set-up was different enough from Vesper Lynd that it made the possibility of Madeline being the one to save Bond welcoming to me. We'll get to the execution of this relationship when I get to my negatives.

Most of the supporting players get more to do, especially Ralph Fiennes as M and Ben Winshaw as Q. As someone who enjoyed Q's absence from Craig's early films, I was dubious of the character's return but so far Winshaw's performance and the way the screen-writers have utilised him has won me over.

The return of recurring villain Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) was extremely well done. Based off the trailers, I was worried that they were going to soften him too much -- he is so cold and callous in his previous appearances, any drastic deviation from this characterisation would have felt out of character. However, it worked: the fact that he is in the process of dying horrifically probably helped a lot in this respect.

Dave Bautista was a very good henchman, and made for a worthy addition to Craig's rogue's gallery. He's never had to face off against a real bruiser before, and their train fight was the highlight of the film, action-wise.

The injection of humour was also very well done: the beat with the couch at the start, the repartee with Q, the C word business -- all great, and well timed.

While I was concerned initially, the Aston Martin chase was fun -- I really liked that all of the gadgets did not work. I always like it more when Bond has to get out of jams on his own wits, and the super car was well used.

And now onto the other side of the coin.

My main problem is with the third act. Blofeld is brought in far too late to have any impact, and the attempt to make him the mover and shaker behind Craig's previous movies feels wedged in. His backstory with Bond, which is clearly meant to be the movie's 'OH SHIT' moment, does not add anything to the story because there has been no build up to it.

Billy Wilder once said that if a story has problems with its third act, the real problem is in the first act. Spectre does not do enough set up in its early scenes to make the final half hour pay off the way they want it to. This extends to the central romance with Madeline -- the script speeds through the arc of their relationship so quickly that Bond's final choice feels totally inexplicable. This brings me back to what Casino Royale got right. That movie had an extremely simple premise: Bond just has to win a card game. While it made the contest between hero and villain more immediate and visceral, the main benefit was to the love story between Bond and Vesper. While the card game is well done, it is the developing bond between Bond and Vesper behind the scenes which is the strength of the movie. Here both A (the mission) and B (the love story) plots are linked and inform each other.

By contrast, the action of Spectre is so vast in scope and scale that the characters get lost. The time needed to build up the love story between Bond and Madeline is further sacrificed in favour of following the traditional beats of the Bond formula. The section with Monica Bellucci is completely superfluous -- she is a great actress and to see her in such a small, expository role really highlighted the limitations of following the formula so closely. Honestly, it would have made more sense if Bond had been following Mr. White in the pre-credits sequence, and then met Madeline at the funeral. That way, you get to that relationship faster, get a nice hopefully-not-heavy-handed info dump about what the heck the plot is (really all they'd have to do is watch Captain America 2 and then they'd be sorted), and then spend more time charting how Swann and Bond's relationship actually develops.

Moneypenny's part in the Craig movies has never made sense to me. While Q and M have always had functions in the movies, Moneypenny always felt unnecessary. Her role was never expository and she never provided in-the-field assistance in the same way that Q would occasionally do. After her active role in Skyfall, I expected Naomi Harris to get more to do in this film - but no. By the halfway point, both Harris and Seydoux have basically been reduced to background colour. Once again, the formula sidelines great actors in conventional roles which have no real narrative purpose.

While there are other things I could go on about (the weird pacing; Thomas Newman's banal score), I'll put a pin in it there.

Ultimately,  Spectre is too busy getting the formula right that it neglects to develop its story and characters. While the excuse could be made that it is just a Bond movie, the argument could also be reversed -- because while there are many bad Bond movies, there are also many good and even great ones. I recommend seeing it, but I really hope Craig makes another one to go out on, because this is a bit of a soft landing.

Final ranking

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
2. Spy 
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
4. Spectre
5. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

COLD WEATHER (2010)



Cold Weather is the story of Doug (Cris Lankenau), a college drop out who has moved back home to Portland, Oregon. Now living with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), he works at an ice packing factory, where he bonds with another worker Carlos (Raul Castillo), over their shared love of Sherlock Holmes. Life goes on with few surprises, until Doug's ex (Robyn Rikoon) disappears from her hotel room, and the unlikely trio are drawn into uncovering the mystery.

I hate to use hyperbole but I love this movie.

It's not big -- it does not have a big mystery or the expected set pieces. There are no drug deals gone bad, or killers on the prowl -- just a missing ex-girlfriend, who might just not want to talk to our hero. The characters are schlubs, and their problems are mundane.

The other thing that makes Cold Weather great is not just how small it is, but how it manages to build on its own strengths rather than spring some late third act 'plot' contrivances. So many lo-fi thrillers end up going for the easy out with a kidnapping or a shootout, but Cold Weather sidesteps that potential pitfall and continues on its own meandering course.

Performances from the small, unknown cast are excellent for how real and un-showy they are. It just feels like a camera man stumbled onto these characters and followed them for a while. Aaron Katz's direction is as minimalist as his cast -- this is a rare picture where every element is on the same, extremely specific bandwidth.

In some ways, Cold Weather reminded me of Let The Right One In -- a genre film stripped of all the cliches and obvious audience signposts, where the focus is on human relationships rather than genre tropes. Cold Weather is a unique creation, and one which deserves more attention.

Check it out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cell 211: Spanish hard time


Cell 211 falls right in that sweet spot of claustrophobic genre movies that I love. It stands toe-to-toe with movies like Assault on Precinct 13, Die Hard and Rear Window. I had heard that this Spanish thriller was good -- I didn't realise it would be THAT good.

The premise is (initially) very simple. New prison guard Juan (Alberto Ammann) is knocked out in an accident and wakes up to find the cell block in the middle of a riot. Pretending to be a new inmate, he gains the trust of bald, charismatic riot leader Malamadre (Luis Tosar).

Based on the premise, this has the makings of a solid genre flick. Thanks to the backdrop, the filmmakers are able to throw in some real world wrinkles (the inmates are using a group of important ETA members as bargaining chips) which prevent the story from going in any predictable direction. As Juan is pulled deeper and deeper into the standoff between prisoners and police, he quickly learns that the usual cop-crim, good-bad binaries do not exist. The authorities are as untrustworthy as Malamadre's mob, a fact hammered home when Juan's wife Elena (Marta Etura) is drawn into the fray.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends  -- everything that Juan and the audience knows and accepts as right and wrong is completely upended. As the situation escalates, Juan undergoes a terrifying character arc which sends the narrative spiralling out of control.

This movie is incredible. With its tight script, strong, visceral direction from Daniel Monzon and committed performances from its cast, Cell 211 rises far above its B-movie trappings to emerge as a truly exceptional drama that is deserving of its multiple Goya awards. 

Check it out before the inevitable Hollywood remake.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A year of spy flicks reviewed: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


I'll be honest, going into this my interest in this film was purely mercenary. Beyond the fact that it is one of the  spy action flicks coming out this year,  it was also one of the 975 films Alicia Vikander is in this year so I had to watch it. I first saw her in A Royal Affair a couple years back, and I've been a fan ever since. This year's Ex Machina only solidified my appreciation for her talents. I had seen the trailers to this movie and, frankly, they left me a little cold.  I have never seen the original TV show so I have no investment in this concept or these characters. Compounding these factors, Guy Ritchie's last directorial effort, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Something or other was so over-stylised it left me with a splitting headache. However, since Alicia the Great was in it, I took that as a sign of quality.

Let's get to the stuff I liked. There's some sweet 60s production design, everyone is dressed to the nines and the whole affair is buoyed considerably by a fabulously retro soundtrack from Daniel Pemberton. The first 10 minutes, in which we are introduced to our heroes, is fantastic. It sets up the differences between our odd couple heroes with a winning combination of economy and charm that stands in mark contrast to the protracted origin tales we so often have to endure nowadays. It is the best sequence in the film. And that's a problem.

After this cracking opening, the movie settles into a middle ground between banal hokum and frothy caper. The plot is the usual 'loose nukes' bit we've seen a million times, the villains do not get enough to do and the set pieces lack the mix of thrilling originality and peril that M:I 5 manages so well. The movie is at its best when diverging from the plot -- the best example being Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) taking a break to enjoy an impromptu snack while a life-and-death boat chase takes place offscreen.

There are a few moments where Ritchie loses control of the tone. There is a torture scene involving a former concentration camp sadist which feels out of place. And the final action sequence, involving rain, blood and Alicia Vikander screaming helplessly, feels like something out of a darker thriller.

The acting by all is fine, but what this movie ultimately lacks is chemistry. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer just do not gel together as a team. Of the pair, Hammer gets the more interesting role as Soviet powerhouse Illya Kuryakin. He brings a bull-in-a-china-shop physicality to the role which makes for some great physical humour, and a contrast to the more suave, sophisticated Solo. As for Cavill, I have never understood his appeal -- he always comes off as a good-looking mannequin. While I can see why he was up for the role of Bond, I can see why he didn't get it. There's something missing from his portrayal of Solo, a certain charisma that never comes through. The character is meant to be a professional con man and man of the world, and yet Cavill comes across as a little too young and clean-cut to fully convince.

The supporting players are fine. Vikander does not embarrass herself, even though she does not get much to do. Jared Harris turns up as Solo's boss, Elizabeth Debicki brings an icy relish to her underwritten villainess and Hugh Grant maximises his little screen time, giving a masterclass in old school charm that makes you almost wish he was playing Solo instead of the Man of Steel.

Ultimately, the movie's problem is that it feels too small-scale, like an extended pilot for a TV show. It's a pleasant diversion, but it is not that memorable. While it's not a bad movie, I feel like this concept and characters would probably benefit from a return to the small screen.

Current ranking

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
2. Spy 
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
4. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A year of spy flicks reviewed: M:I 5

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
This is one strange series. It does not really have an identifiable signature beyond the tropes from the TV series and Tom Cruise climbing on things. There is no cool central character along the lines of Bond or Indy, and no really interesting villains (although Philip Seymour Hoffman comes close). It is also really inconsistent in terms of quality. I like 1 and 4, hate 2, and I'm kinda meh on 3.

While I can't really call myself a die hard fan, I have never missed one in the theatre, mainly because each movie is so different from its predecessors -- this is thanks to Tom Cruise's desire to ensure that every film has a different director with an identifiable directorial stamp. This latest entry comes from Christopher McQuarrie, the veteran screenwriter whose previous directorial effort, Jack Reacher, I had enjoyed. That movie had a very un-showy, economical and hardboiled style to it which reminded me of old-school action flicks from the 70s -- it felt like Don Siegel or Walter Hill could have made it. So when I heard McQuarrie was coming on to do M:I 5, I was really excited.

This movie is awesome. It is like the best parts of all the previous movies put together and elevated to another level. More than any of the previous entries, this feels like a proper story, rather than a series of set pieces strung together. This one also manages to get more exciting as the movie proceeds -- even Ghost Protocol, which is one of my favourites of the series, slackens after the mid-film Dubai sequence.

In Rogue Nation, each set piece is in contention as the film's stand-out. The Opera sequence is gloriously Hitchcockian; the underwater sequence is incredibly tense and the motorcycle chase is far more visceral than any vehicle chase I've seen in years. There is something so refreshing about watching action sequences that are based on people, their skills and how they are able to utilise their environments to gain the upper hand. Along with Mad Max: Fury Road, this was the only summer movie that felt like a proper action flick, and not a superhero film or a video game.

Performances all round were great, especially by Rebecca Ferguson as an enigmatic secret agent and, in an expanded role, Simon Pegg as loveable tech head Benji. There is a good section of the film where Cruise and Pegg are the only major characters onscreen and their dynamic is a joy: the car chase sequence alone -- in which a barely conscious Cruise has to navigate a car backwards with a terrified Pegg in the passenger seat -- feels like a great teaser for an epic buddy movie.

Overall, this is one of the best entries in the series, and one of the best action flicks of the summer. On this evidence, M:I 6 cannot come soon enough.

Current ranking

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
2. Spy 
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A year of spy flicks reviewed: Spy

On to Day 2 of my retrospective of 2015's slate of spy action flicks (I cannot believe that this year is nearly gone) with the Paul Feig comedy Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy and our lord and saviour Jason Statham.
This movie is great.

Great, great, great. In total seriousness, this is one of the best comedies, let alone spy comedies, I have seen in years. It is also Melissa McCarthy's best showcase since Bridesmaids, because it gives her a character that plays to her strengths and feels like a real person. Furthermore, the film does not trade in making cheap jokes of McCarthy's un-spy-like physique. Neither does the movie make her a clueless ditz. Her character, Susan Cooper, is smart and capable but is completely inexperienced with field work.

What is also great is that the action stuff is up to par with the comedy. You could take out the jokes, and it would still be a compelling spy story, with plenty of twists, character development and action sequences. There's even a fight in a kitchen which manages to be both a great exercise in physical comedy and gripping at the same time.

The film's MVP has to be Jason Statham. It is not just that Statham sends himself up -- he gets to play a guy who thinks he is Jason Statham, but does not have the skills or intelligence to be Jason Statham.  I won't spoil any of the brain dead goodness that he delivers, but he is worth the price of admission alone. The first film since Crank 2 to give the the Stath a chance to show off his comedic chops, Spy is his best film in years, and hopefully gives his career a boost.

Of all the films in this feature, Spy is the one film that I really hope gets a sequel.

Current ranking

1. Spy 
2. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Friday, November 6, 2015

2015: A year of spy flicks reviewed (Part One)

What a year for spy movies! I'm a fan of the genre, so I reviewed them all. In the run up to the Antipodean release of Spectre next week, I'm going to release reviews of the various spy-related movies that came out this year, starting with today's review of...

Kingsman: The Secret Service
I'm not as high on this as most other people out there. A homage to old-school Bond flicks, Kingsman ends up as a prime example of the things I dislike about the veteran spy series. The acting is excellent -- Firth steals the whole show, Egerton is a far better lead than Vaughn had in Kickass, and Jackson has great fun as a larger-than-life villain. However while they are all great, for me the kudos have to go to Sofia Boutella as Valentine's hench woman Gazelle -- a superlative re-working of Rosa Klebb, she's the best hench woman to come along since Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye.

The first half of the movie is a lot of fun, as working class hero Eggsy (Edgerton) is introduced to the world of the Kingsman organisation, and learns how to be a gentleman spy from his mentor, veteran agent Harry Hart (Firth). The movie has a nice balance between old and new school spying, with some good banter and a good emotional anchor in the relationship between Eggsy and Harry.

However, while I enjoyed the first half of Kingsman, the second half illustrates one of my issues with the Brosnan movies -- if you are going to take a formula designed for a particular era (the 60s) and then transpose it without modification to a contemporary context, you are going to run into problems.

The one token adjustment is the violence, which is designed to add a sense of danger and excitement to the Roger Moore-ish antics but it just comes off as crass and sadistic. My main problem was how inconsistent the tone and style of violence was -- especially the church sequence. In the other action scenes, the violence is carried off with a cartoonish sensibility that emphasises the humour and feels in keeping with the frothy tone of the first half of the picture.

The church scene is meant to illustrate how the villain's plan is going to work, which is fine -- it's a chance to raise the stakes for our heroes. But the way the scene is played is completely at odds with what the scene means within the story. Instead of giving a sense of the peril the world is in, Vaughn is more interested in showing that Colin Firth has spent some time at the gym, and making a sick joke out of having Mr. Darcy massacre a group of people in ways that would make Jason Vorhees blush. It just feels completely out of place with the rest of the movie, and threw off the rest of the movie for me.

While there are a few nice touches in the home stretch, Kingsman just turns into a modern equivalent of a Roger Moore Bond movie and becomes a series of very predictable and uninteresting set pieces. The final fight with Gazelle felt a little too CGI-assisted for my taste, and with all of his gadgets, it never felt like Eggsy was in any real peril. The Busby Berkley-style head explosions were great, but other than that, the climax just felt tired and old-fashioned. That final joke was a misstep too.

Overall, I'm split on the movie. I enjoyed the first half, and did not particularly care for the second half. However, I recommend it -- it's an interesting experiment in taking an old formula and updating it. While it is not a complete success, there are plenty of aspects to the production (including the fantastic musical score) which are worth a look.