Monday, 29 August 2016

AFS Screening: Grand Central

With the AFS screenings, I choose classic movies which I have never seen before. I broke this rule because of this movie's cast: Tahar Rahim was in A Prophet, one of the best crime films I've seen in years, and Lea Seydoux has been in lots of great things (and some not-so-great things).

The story is about a ne'er-do-well (Rahim) who gets a job working in the bowels of a nuclear power plant. While he has to worry about the dangers of radiation exposure (known ominously as 'The Dose'), he finds distraction in the arms of a workmate's wife (Seydoux). 

This movie is a skin-crawling experience. The nuclear power plant is no backdrop to the action -- it powers (haha) the entire experience of the movie.

The dangers of contamination and sterility are constantly evoked. Many shots feature the power plant looming over the action like some powerful, apathetic god, and it quickly becomes clear that it is literally the most important character in the film. 

When the central lovers are together, it's not erotic or romantic -- it just feels like two frail, insignificant organisms. Their affair would be the most important part of a drama like this, but co-writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski forces it into the background. Her use of slow motion and the discordant music by Robin Coudert saps the non-work-related sequences of life. It is as though, even when they are not on the clock, the power plant is sapping them dry.

The movie is very existential and depressing -- what is the point of drinking, or having fun, or sex, or living, when you know you are slowly being poisoned to death?

Grand Central is a strange, unsettling experience. I can't say I didn't enjoy it however.

The story is always engrossing, the actors are all believable and understated, and Rebecca Zlotowski's direction is extremely imaginative -- she manages to balance moments of extreme, visceral reality and strange, poetic passages of silence. 

It might not be to all tastes, but Grand Central is a very engrossing watch, that seeps into your brain and stays there. 

Saturday, 27 August 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Hell and High Water (Sam Fuller, 1954)

I caught this movie a couple of years back and while I can't attest to its artistic brilliance, I have a soft spot for its b-movie thrills.

A cold war caper made by 20th Century Fox, this involves a crew of WWII vets re-fitting an old Japanese u-boat to find out what is going on at a mysterious island in the far north of the Pacific ocean.

Starring Richard Widmark as the u-boat's reluctant captain, and steered by he-man filmmaker Sam Fuller, Hell and High Water is a splashy comic book of a movie with vivid widescreen cinematography and an overheated score courtesy of Alfred Newman.

The plot is cheesy, and the characters are stock, but the whole thing is played with an unpretentious sense of fun that makes all the cliches go down easy.

It's a weird mix of old school studio gloss and pulp thrills -- the widescreen photography and presence of a big star like Widmark can't help but carry a certain glamour, yet these elements are juxtaposed against a plot straight out of a 1940s adventure serial and the studio head's latest squeeze as the female lead.

Bella Darvi was studio honcho Darryl Zanuck's girlfriend at the time, and he spent a few years trying to make her into a movie star. Hell and High Water was a decent-sized hit and represents the high water mark of her short-lived career. Her performance is fine, but it is easy to see why she didn't go onto much more.

There really isn't much more to the plot: Widmark and co. go to the island, fight a duel with another sub, Darvi's dad sacrifices himself for the team, Widmark and Darvi fall in love and the crew make a final raid on the island to stop the Reds dropping a nuke on Seoul. Cue fireball and credits.

Apparently Steven Spielberg is a big fan of this movie, and it is easy to see some of its DNA in the Berg's Indiana Jones movies. At least, that's what Sam Fuller says in his extremely entertaining autobiography.

Speaking of Fuller, this is an odd match of filmmaker and material. Fuller is more well known for hard-hitting nourish dramas like Pick-Up on South Street (a great movie which also stars Widmark), Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and White Dog. 

While it is not as good as those films, Hell and High Water is a neat little spin on the man-on-a-mission template that makes for an enjoyable 90 minutes.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Enemy Territory (Peter Manoogian, 1987)

I first heard about this movie about six years ago on the old version of Latino Review. While they were known for their early scoops and script reviews, occasionally, they would drop reviews of old movies I'd never heard of. 

This one peaked my interest, and it turned out to be a really fun flick.

Gary Frank stars as Barry, an insurance salesman who is failing at his job (he hasn't had a sale in ages) and life (he can't afford child support/alimony for his ex-wife and kids).

On the brink of being fired, he's given one last shot: get an old woman's signature on an insurance policy and get it back to his boss before the end of the day. Simple job, but the problem is she lives in an apartment block controlled by a gang called the Vampires and their psychopathic leader 'The Count' (Tony Todd).

Barry gets the old woman's signature, but an early mishap with a young gang member brings the whole gang down on his head.

This is where Will, played by Ray Parker Jr (Yes, that Ray Parker Jr), comes in. He plays Will, a telephone company employee who has made a stop at his girlfriend's apartment. He joins Barry in trying to get out of the apartment building, while the Count has his men systematically hunt for them floor by floor, apartment by apartment.

Lensed by Spike Lee's early DP Ernst Dickerson (Malcolm X, Do The Right Thing), Enemy Territory is a tight, well-shot little thriller that is far smarter than its simple premise and b-movie trappings would suggest.

Unlike so many thrillers of this kind, this movie does not use race as a a divider between good and evil.

Barry is a gormless townie who is completely out of his depth, and is often relegated to the background. He does not fit in, and has to rely completely on Will and various good samaritans among the weary tenants to help him. The one other white person in the movie, a drunken Vietnam vet played by Jan-Michael Vincent, is a racist paranoiac, who is little help.  

One of the tenants, played by a young Stacey Dash, manages to escape the building and get to the police. In a nasty twist which feels ripped from toady's headlines, she is arrested by the cops who think she is causing a disturbance.

Performances from the cast are generally solid -- Frank and Parker are fine as the leads, Jan-Michael Vincent is visibly intoxicated, and Stacey Dash comes off as a little too much of an ingenue to convince. 

The acting honours go to Tony Todd. As the movie's villain, he owns every scene he's in. Todd's always good value in everything I've seen him in, and he is on sterling form here. He is a believable threat, a veritable cult leader with a genuine belief in his own vampirism. He adds a genuine sense of danger to proceedings.

Overall, Enemy Territory is a fun little b-movie that manages to pack few surprises and doesn't out-stay its welcome.

This movie is on Youtube and you can check it out here.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

RAMBLING RANT: Remember when Adam Sandler was funny?

The last time I watched an Adam Sandler movie in the theatre was Don't Mess With The Zohan. Aside from a batshit opening, it is pretty mediocre.

The last time I watched a new Sandler movie beginning to end was That's My Boy. As well as being a noxious piece of crap, this 'movie' solidified for me why Sandler was so rubbish. In any other movie, Sandler's character--a childish man who manipulates his son to make a buck--would be the villain. Instead he is presented as a hero, while his offspring (Adam Sandberg) is presented as a stick in the mud.

Take an early vehicle as an example: Billy Madison is a childish, self-indulgent prick who is the scion of a wealthy family. He is forced to finish school, and continues acting like a complete douchebag for the rest of the movie. The 'bad guy' is just a man who has been working at his father's company for years. Without going further into it, it's pretty clear Billy does not deserve an inheritance.

 It's a hard persona to make sympathetic, but aside from this one instance, Sandler's early movies at least attempt to give this character an arc, to have him grow from a man child to an adult.

In the last several years, as Sandler's interest in movies seemingly declines, this attempt at character building has disappeared. In every movie now, Sandler plays an angry man-child butting heads with the world because he thinks it owes him something.

Here's a brief look-back at the star vehicles where Sandler got out of his own way and played people you didn't want to punch in the face.

Happy Gilmore (1996)

Sandler's petulant rage is channeled into a redemption story in which Happy has to learn to control his temper, so he can win a golf tournament and use the prise money to save his Grandma's house.

Sandler is helped by a genuinely funny script and two great supporting characters in mentor Chubs (Carl Weathers) and arch nemesis Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald).

I would argue that McGavin is the reason why Happy Gilmore works so well. He is such a glorious prick, from the moment he turns up onscreen -- everything he does and says is designed to irk, from hiring some wacko to drive Happy insane, to the way he orders a Pepsi ("Oh, and Miss? Diet"). If he was not so evil, it would be hard to root for Happy. He's a moron with the emotional control of a psychopath (in the scene in the club bar, watch the way he goes from talking to Shooter to smashing a beer bottle to stab him with it, in about two seconds. Insane).

It also helps that Happy's goal is so pure: he just wants to save his Grandma's house (it also helps that the old folks home where she is living appears to be a sweat shop run by Ben Stiller's evil superintendent).

Happy Gilmore will never win any awards (although McDonald deserves something), but it is a fun comedy that remains one of Sandler's best vehicles.

The Wedding Singer (1998)

Bobby Hart is the most sympathetic Sandler-generated character he has ever played. Sandler has played sympathetic characters in other peoples' movies (Punch-Drunk Love), but The Wedding Singer is the one time Sandler crafted a character for himself that feels like a loveable human being. Bobby Hart is an earnest, genuine guy whose only emotional outbursts are born of understandable, relatable frustrations. Otherwise, he's just an average guy looking for love.

It helps that he is paired with Drew Barrymore. Their chemistry is so strong, it's a pity they have not done more vehicles together (although Blended is good reason they probably shouldn't).

Backed by a great soundtrack, characters and set pieces (the 'Love Stinks' scene might be Sandler's funniest), The Wedding Singer is an honest-to-goodness great comedy.

50 First Dates (2004)

If it weren't for Paul Thomas Anderson and Blended, I would say that Drew Barrymore brought out the best in Sandler.

Sandler plays a womanizing asshole named Henry Roth who is forced to become more selfless when he falls for Lucy, a woman with short-term memory loss. Initially he sees her handicap as a great advantage -- they can have a one-night stand and she won't remember anything in the morning. However, events don't go according to this scummy plan, Henry ends up falling for her and spends the movie winning her over.

This movie could have been so bad -- so many of the same cliches that clog up Sandler's other movies are present and correct (most prominent is Rob Schneider as a 'native Hawaiian'), and most of them are horrible -- as usual -- and yet the movie works.

The romance between Sandler and Barrymore is funny and unpredictable -- because of her memory loss, the writers are able to play with our expectations of how Barrymore is going to react to Sandler's daily appearances, and the jokes are all based on cutting Henry down, rather than ridiculing Lucy. This allows us to get a more well-rounded sense of her personality, and provides Henry with a shot at redemption.

50 First Dates has been forgotten in the decade of dross we've been subjected to since, but it deserves more recognition as one of Sandler's last great vehicles. Funny People came later, but 50 First Dates is the last time Sandler appeared to give a shit in one of his own projects.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

AMERICAN ULTRA (Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

American Ultra totally passed me by last year. I don't even remember it getting a theatrical release in NZ. I finally decided to take a look.

American Ultra is about Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner who lives in the small town of Liman, West Virginia. When he isn't working the counter at a Cash'n'Carry, he's doing drugs and making life harder for his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

The movie begins with him experiencing a panic attack as he tries to take Phoebe on a long-delayed vacation to Hawaii. The pair dejectedly return home, and Mike's lack of drive increases.

One day, a mysterious woman turns up at Mike's work and repeats an odd phrase at him. This triggers a strange change in Mike. After work, he catches two men messing with his car, and kills them.

Terrified, he calls Phoebe.

Soon, the pair are on the run from a shadowy organisation intent on wiping Mike out.

Eventually the truth is revealed: Mike was a subject in a super-spy program, who has been placed back into civilian life. And Phoebe is not just his girlfriend, she was his handler in the CIA.

Cue shoot-outs, gore, a toothless Walton Goggins and a cameo from a famous(ish) actor.

American Ultra is one of those movies where the idea is cool, the actors are all doing good work, and yet the whole thing never rises above its components.

The script by Max Landis (Chronicle) has plenty of interesting ideas, and his handling of the central couple's relationship is more nuanced than it initially appears, but the story doesn't go anywhere that interesting. It just ends in a shootout and a proposal.

The bigger problem is the direction. The script is clearly demanding a juggling of tones which Nima Nourizadeh fumbles. The comedy is patchy, and the violence comes across as too graphic -- it feels more like a serious action movie, but never feels funny in the same way as something like a Tarantino flick or In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). The movie is also visually uninteresting -- it feels like the script is going for something more irreverent and hi-octane, but the movie comes across as flat and extremely dark.

Where this movie scores, and where I was totally invested, was in the relationship between Eisenberg and Stewart. I have a feeling the reason I ended up liking the movie is down to their chemistry and interplay.

Mike and Phoebe feel real, and their relationship, as fucked-up and co-dependant as it is, feels lived in. Despite their problems, and the fact that they would probably do better if they broke up, these two are completely invested in each other. The early pre-spy part of the movie was genuinely involving, and kind of heart-breaking. I found the scene where Mike relays an idea he had for a comic book more interesting than anything else because it felt like the kind of random nonsense people talk about. And the fact that Phoebe is clearly the only person who could find that idea interesting... there's a great relationship movie stuck in here, and every nugget of it is worth savouring.

Eisenberg is good as Mike. He's annoying and lazy, and half the time you want to slap him upside the head for being an asshole, yet Eisenberg manages to make him (somehow) sympathetic.  The scene where he tells Phoebe she'd be better off without him is genuinely heartbreaking. Definitely a good example of how solid casting can save an unlikeable role.

The real surprise was Stewart. I've liked her in the past, but this was something else. Her forte is usually characters dealing with internal struggles (which is why her role as Snow White, warrior woman, is so cringe-worthy), but here she feels more alive and off-the-cuff than she's ever been. She makes it credible that a seemingly normal woman would go out with a dumbass like Mike, and you wind up hoping they make it out together.

The twist that she is his handler feels... odd. I wasn't that bothered by it because the acting was so good, but it does make for a queasy post-mortem. So Phoebe has given up her life to maintain this charade with a brainwashed man who is incapable of living by himself... because of her? I needed more exposition for this. It does undermine the nature of their relationship, but once again I'll chalk it up to the chemistry and performances sanding off the rough edges of Landis' conceit.

The rest of the cast are fine. Connie Britton and Topher Grace play rival CIA operatives -- Britton is solid, but underused; Grace is flimsy as the Big Bad. He still looks and sounds too much like Eric Foreman to convince as the architect of a secret conspiracy. John Leguizamo plays Mike's drug dealer, but the role could have been played by anyone (or cut entirely). Walton Goggins is in a completely different movie. He plays one of Grace's hitmen -- the problem is he feels like a serial killer from the next David Fincher movie.

Ultimately, American Ultra is a decent action comedy. It's more original than the usual fare we get these days, but it just lacks the dramatic heft to get its clever premise over the line. Definitely worth a look for the performances by the leads.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Spy movie review: Jason Bourne

It took awhile for me to get around to seeing this. But I finally did, and here's some rambling thoughts...

I'm not a big Jason Bourne fan. While I appreciate their impact on genre cinema (everything from Bond to Batman to frickin' Race to Witch Mountain has been influenced by them), my feelings about the individual entries are a little mixed.

I like Identity. It's a clever, really understated little movie which I enjoy more every time I watch it.  For reasons I still don't quite understand, I dislike Supremacy -- maybe it's just because I never really bought the romance in the original movie, but his girlfriend's death just never felt that impactful. It just doesn't have the emotional hook of the first movie. By contrast, I love Ultimatum. Everything great about the franchise comes together in a terrific bow. It feels like the end of a complete story. While it is more of a tangent, I missed The Bourne Legacy when it came out and I still haven't seen it. 

Based off of how great Ultimatum was, Bourne 5 sounded like a solid prospect for 2016. 

Sorry to tell you guys, but I was a bit disappointed with this one. It turned out to be a bit slack and generic. In a Bourne movie, a franchise built on its gritty hyper-realism and avoidance of genre cliches, those qualities are death.

Instead of previous Bourne movies, this movie reminded me of Rambo III. That's the first thing I thought of when watching the first few minutes of this movie.

Like that sequel, we are re-introduced to a super-buff Bourne trying to seek a life of peace by beating people up for money. Like that movie, we get an old authority figure telling Bourne to recognise and accept what he is. And like that movie, this movie suffers from feeling old-fashioned and kind of listless.

The plot is kind of hard to follow (cue plot spoilers!). Jason Bourne comes out of exile when he is contacted by his CIA ally Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles, completely flat), who has discovered new information on his past. She promptly dies. Cue flashbacks to events and characters we've never seen before. Cue Bourne going after the bad guys. Cue said bad guys, CIA head honcho Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) sending a bunch of nondescript hitmen after him. Meanwhile an internet billionaire is... doing stuff?

I'll be honest, the plot was so boring, there were huge parts where I completely checked out (mostly anything to do with the social network guy).

And the dialogue. CLUNK! So wooden. Everything felt like a first draft. It gets better as the movie progresses, but the dialogue lacks the bite and economy of the previous movies. Scribes Tony Gilroy and George Nolfi are sorely missed.

Like the plots of Captain America 2 and last year's Spectre, the bad guys here are developing a new and nefarious form of cyber-surveillance. It's even less developed here than in those movies. If the movie had been about the CIA using Ironhand (that's its name) to hunt down enemies like Bourne, then maybe it would have felt more like a real threat. As is, it's just another tired plot device.

Paul Greengrass's direction is fine. There are a few points where it is really hard to follow what is going on. Barry Ackroyd's photography, while handheld, does not have the same immediacy as Oliver Wood's work on the previous movies -- it's too clean and glossy.

In terms of action, the set pieces are all over the place, quality-wise.

Bourne and Nikki's escape through a riot is a tad chaotic. There were several points where the camera was so shaky and frenetically edited I could not follow what was going on.

The Las Vegas chase felt contrived and completely out of style with the Bourne aesthetic. It also goes on way too long. The problem is that it feels like an 'action scene', whereas the car chases in previous Bournes felt organic to the story, and relatively 'real'.

The script is the real problem here. This is the first Bourne movie to start shooting with a completed script --whereas the previous movies were assembled through endless reshooting, this was more of a traditional movie shoot, and the lack of endless tinkering really hurts here.

On the plus side, the acting is good. Though the script fails to give him a compelling reason to be back, Matt Damon is still great as Bourne.The main problem is that, apart from Nikki Parsons, we don't get anyone else from the previous movies.

While Bourne is the title character, he's always been a blank, a mystery. It's the ensemble around him that make him feel more interesting.

And not having that supporting cast around (primarily Joan Allen as Pamela Landy) to add colour and shade to his personality, really limits Bourne's impact this time around. It's hard to latch on and invest in his story.

Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander are good additions who slot right into Bourne's world. Jones, in particular, is fantastic as the ultimate villain of the piece. The only downside is that we don't see how he relates to the villains of the previous Bourne movies -- his antagonism with Bourne is based on a relationship we have never seen before. Here, I feel Jones's performance is doing the heavy lifting of making Dewey feel like a genuine threat. Slot anyone else in, and the character would just be another CIA suit.

Vincent Cassel makes an impression as Dewey's chief muscle, an assassin with a grudge against Bourne for exposing the Blackbriar/Treadstone program. He feels the most threatening of Bourne's antagonists, and could have used a little more character development. The way the filmmakers tie him into Bourne's past is incredibly unnecessary, though.

The most interesting character of this new batch is Vikander's Heather Lee. While her American accent pushes credibility, and she is as much a victim of the dialogue as the rest of the cast, she remains extremely interesting to watch. Throughout the movie, Lee's character is extremely ambiguous, with the filmmakers setting up two potential roles she can fit into -- an ice cool CIA cyber-hitman, or a principled egghead (ala Nikki Parsons) who sees the light. Vikander manages to ride this line without ever tipping her hand. If the movie had paid more attention to this character and her relationship with Dewey and Bourne, this movie could have been great.

The ending tries to make a twist of her character's final allegiances, but like Jones, Vikander is a strong performer who can paper over the script's limitations in a credible way. If a lesser performer had played her role, it may have felt horribly contrived.

Final verdict? A boring script and overly polished execution dull Bourne's natural excitement. Since his story was completed nine years ago, the filmmakers needed to provide a strong reason for his return. On that count, they flubbed it.

While it's not terrible, in the end Jason Bourne is far too pedestrian and boring to recommend.

Sunday, 7 August 2016


I got tired of waiting for this movie to come out, so I asked Santa Claus and he gave me it for free.

I am a big fan of high concept, low-budget genre movies -- especially those which dabble in a slightly scoff-postapocalyptic vein. Think Escape From New York, Mad Max, or Dredd.

The premise behind The Purge is insane. Following a revolution, the New Founding Fathers have instituted The Purge -- a national holiday during which all types of violent crime are encouraged. For 12 hours from the night of March 21st to the morning of the 22nd, you can settle a grievance, steal something you can't afford, or engage in whatever deviant urge floats your boat.

II'll be honest --  I haven't seen The Purge. The premise sounded boring, and the reviews didn't help.

I did see the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, which was really fun and over-the-top, and felt more like a genuine attempt to tackle the premise the first film hints at. Purge: Election Year seemed to be in the same vein.

Now onto their third instalment, the makers behind The Purge franchise continue to show up their bigger budget counterparts in world building. Part of the fun of these movies is the way filmmakers have been able to overcome their limited budgets to convey a world beyond the movie.

The Washington DC of The Purge: Election Year continues the series tradition of nightmare urban landscapes -- lit by neon, and filled with medieval tableaus of murder and mayhem.

And like the films I just mentioned, the makers behind The Purge: Election Year know that they need a special kind of anti-hero to survive this hellscape, and they have the perfect man for the job.

Following his barnstorming turn in The Purge: Anarchy, real life badass Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes to kick ass and take names. He is now the head of security for a presidential candidate running a platform to end the Purge.

Played by Lost's Elizabeth Mitchell, Charlie Roane's family were killed in an earlier Purge. She hopes to end the Purge and restore the country from the dystopia it has become.

The establishment - old, white, religious and male -- want her dead. They change the rules so that public officials are no longer exempt from the Purge -- putting Leo and the senator in danger.

Made by the same team as the first two films, The Purge: Election Year is a blood-soaked, pitch black  b-movie. It's also a totally ham-fisted satire about the current state of American politics that has no subtlety whatsoever.

In any other movie, that would be a problem. Here, it is totally appropriate.

The movie's plot is really simple. Like a classic exploitation movie, it boils down to a series of set pieces.

We get a group of European tourists, who are in DC for a bit of holiday purging. Dressed as American icons like Uncle Sam, they form part of one of the film's more debauched and surreal sequences.

In another scene, our heroes hide in an ambulance while two street gangs stage gladiatorial matches nearby.

One building's residents have built a swinging scythe ala The Pit and the Pendulum that swings across a tight alleyway.

A Russian uses a drone to target his victims. We know it's Russian because he screams in the language over a loudspeaker and plays shitty Russian techno music. Subtle, this movie ain't.

Best of all, we get a group of psychopathic schoolgirls with one hell of a sweet tooth. After they get caught shoplifting  candy at a convenience store, they return in a car covered in lights blaring Miley Cyrus' 'Party in the USA' and hefting AK-47s.

They want candy, they want blood, and not necessarily in that order.

It's nuts, it's stupid, it's amazing -- this scene completely sums up the movie.

In terms of the Big Bad, the New Founding Fathers have been in the background up until now, and The Purge: Election Year tears the curtain away to reveal them in their full, rancid glory.

Earlier, I mentioned how there is no political subtext here -- every jab at contemporary US politics is obvious to the point of parody. In the hyper-stylised context of The Purge, anything else would come off as underwhelming. Roane's opponent Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor) is an amalgamation of a few recent candidates' less appealing policy positions and beliefs. To ram it home, the filmmakers make him an evangelical preacher who characterises the Purge as a mechanism for humanity's god-given imperfections. 

The cast here are solid. Grills remains a charismatic action hero and, off the back of The Purge flicks alone, deserves bigger roles (he would make a great Jack Reacher). Mitchell is terrific as his idealistic charge, and maintains the film's sole concession to credibility.  

Of the rest of the cast, the standout is Mykelti Williamson. Doomed to be forever remembered as Forrest Gump's friend Bubba, Williamson has a great time as Joe, the owner of the beleaguered convenience store. He gets all the best lines, and is the instigator of the psycho schoolgirls' siege of his business.

Overall, The Purge: Election Year is a great exploitation flick. In a year of underwhelming blockbusters, it is an appealingly small scale, simple genre exercise that gets the job done and doesn't hang around longer than it needs to.

If you enjoyed the last Purge, this will be right up your alley. Even if you haven't seen the others, this one is still worth a watch.

Here's hoping for Purge 4

RAMBLIN' RANT: Michael Bolton's Soul Provider

Last year I was going through a big book of CDs. There were a couple of Christmas compilations, the usual early children stuff, movie soundtracks, show tunes and some classical music. A lot of the music was stuff my parents were into when they were younger. So there were appearances by Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Milli Vanilli (got to be a collector's item, right?) and the Backstreet Boys (okay, that one was mine).

The one CD that I started listening to was this one.

Bolton is pretty much a joke nowadays, and his style of music died with the Berlin Wall. He is also kind of limited as a vocalist, and it is pretty easy to make fun of his husky, shouty style. 

However, there is something about this album that I like. 

When I listen to music from this time, it conjures up a very specific era between 1988-1993. I can barely remember it, but if I hear music (The Bodyguard soundtrack) or watch a movie from that time period (Home Alone 2 is a big one, for some reason) that I associate with growing up I get transported right back.

It's a weird kind of 'not-stalgia'. Maybe it's the late 80s production. Compared with the overly techno approach of most of today's pop music, there's something warm and appealing about Soul Provider. And maybe it is the cynicism of the age we live in but there's something charming about the overt sentimentality of the songs and Bolton's delivery. It's so po-faced and sincere it can come off as laughable, yet that's part of the charm.

Let's break it down.

The album starts with my favourite track off the album, 'Soul Provider'. It's basically Bolton's mission statement and distills him to his sentimental essence. It's got sax, it's got guttural rambling, it sounds exactly like you think it sounds. It's great.

'Georgia On My Mind' is where I get off the Bolton Train and join the resistance crew trying to blow it off the tracks. My main problem is that it's Bolton singing the song EXACTLY the same way as the original version. And Bolton, while he's good with a cheesy ballad, is garbage with anything else.

'Only My Heart' cements the album's turn into Schmaltzville. It's boring and repetitive. It's the kind of overly maudlin tripe you expect Bolton to sing and it's as dumb as it sounds.

And on and on it goes.

The only other song that sticks out above the dross is 'You Wouldn't Know Love'. It has a bit more energy to it, and is more of a cheesy eighties rock song. It's not great, but I have a special fondness for those kinds of songs.

Other than that, the album is stock late eighties pop-soul. If you're looking for a better example of this style, check out Keith Washington's Make Time For Love

One of these days I need to do a more extensive review of that one.


Why did I review this again?

Saturday, 6 August 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Nomi Song (Andrew Horn, 2004)

Klaus Nomi is one of the most fascinating and original musicians I have come across. While his music is not really my thing, I have been fascinated by his unique approach and how fully realised his project was. Nomi was a counter-tenor singer of arias and pop songs long before these things were popular, and he did so while building an androgynous, alien persona which felt completely his own and perfectly in sync with the blend of musical styles he operated in.

Today, if you recognise the name and face, it is probably from his appearance backing David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in the late seventies, or his great cameo as one of Bowie's henchmen on The Venture Brothers

I first heard about Klaus Nomi in 2013 via a podcast. The hosts were listening to 'scary' sounds, and one of the clips was a Klaus Nomi song. The clip was his live performance of 'Cold Song'. It was a case of poor taste --  Nomi was dying from AIDs-related illnesses at the time it was recorded and the performance was one of his last.

Interest piqued, I looked him up and fell down a rabbit hole. Eventually, I came upon this documentary on Youtube.

If you want to learn about Nomi, The Nomi Song (2004) is the perfect introduction.

Beginning with a clip from the fifties sci-fi classic It Came From Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953), The Nomi Song perfectly encapsulates Nomi's unique persona and appeal.

A trained opera singer, Nomi was a German immigrant who found his home and muse in the New York City of the mid-seventies. While the city grappled with a massive deficit, crumbling infrastructure, crime and blackouts, its arts scene was a vibrant site for improvised, handmade art. In this environment of like-minded outsiders, Nomi began to develop a show based around his unique counter-tenor. Singing arias and pop covers, Nomi was impossible to label, and was at the forefront of what New York's art scene signified.

As well as a chronicle of a unique talent, the story of Klaus Nomi is the story of a specific time in American underground culture. We get interviews with, and vintage footage of, icons of the new and no wave scenes,  building a picture of a man and a time that will probably never be repeated.

I won't spoil the movie, but it is a terrific balancing act between exploring Nomi's talents, and his less successful personal life. As his success grew, Nomi began to ignore the collaborators who had written his songs and helped him gain the spotlight.

Overall, this is a terrific documentary, and is definitely worth a look.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Overlooked Bonds: For Your Eyes Only & The Living Daylights

For my last Bond-related word salad, I focused on two of the more... 'unfocused', shall we say, entries in the long-running series. For this bit of nonsense I'm focusing on two films at the other end of the scale. Not only are For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights extremely underrated, I would argue that they are two of the very best films in the franchise.

For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981)

Before we get into the movie proper, some context. The late seventies marked a return to form for the Bond franchise -- Roger Moore had figured out how to make Bond his own and the filmmakers had come up with an epic version of the Bond formula that was proving extremely lucrative at the box office. This period also marked the franchise at its most staid.

As well as the last film of the seventies, Moonraker was the apex of this style. While it was a major commercial success, it was also a carbon copy, scene-for-scene remake of its immediate predecessor, The Spy Who Loved Me

With its endless gadgets, repetitive plotting, cardboard characters and space station climax, Moonraker set a new bar for how OTT the franchise could get. The next picture could not be in the same style (after space, where can you go?) and the decision was made to bring the franchise back to earth.

There was a precedent for this -- back in 1967 You Only Live Twice had been the first 'epic' of the franchise. It was also meant to be Sean Connery's last picture in the role, and so when it came time to make On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a decision was made to scale back and go back to the books. Whether this was a creative decision, or motivated by a reduced budget (due to the casting of unknown George Lazenby), it set the template for all re-castings going forward -- all of Connery's successors debuted in (relatively) scaled down adventures and then proceeded to get bigger in scale.

This approach would have been the same for For Your Eyes Only, however at the 11th hour Roger Moore was signed on for what would be his final adventure. And had he decided to go out on it, For Your Eyes Only would have been a more than worthy finish to the Raised Eyebrow's tenure.

And now to the man behind the camera. Before his decade of Bondage, John Glen was editor and second-unit director on several previous James Bond pictures. After For Your Eyes Only, Glen directed every James Bond film in the Eighties.

Glen is often criticized for being bland and uninspired in terms of his visual style, and his tenure is often regarded as a series low point. However, as these films illustrate, Glen was only as good as his material, and when the script was solid Glen shone.

For Your Eyes Only begins with a pre-credit sequence that is, by fan concensus, either great or terrible. The sequence starts with a nice little throwback -- Bond laying flowers at his wife Tracy's (OHMSS) grave. It's a nice link to the past and sets up the movie's more reflective tone and theme of revenge.

Following this, Bond gets in a helicopter to go back to MI6 for a new assignment.
    Suddenly the pilot is electrocuted and a voice pipes through the speakers claiming to be an old enemy.
      We never see his face but he is in a wheelchair, has a bald head and a Persian cat. It's Blofeld! Or not. The thing is at this point Eon did not have the rights to Blofeld or Spectre, and so this was their way of throwing some shade at the rights holder, Kevin McClory. McClory was then beginning pre-production on what would be Sean Connery's second return to Bondage, Never Say Never Again (Working title: Fuck you, Eon).

      This in-joke was probably lost on audiences at the time, and remains a bizarre aspect of the scene that doesn't quite translate. I remember watching it as a kid and getting jazzed up -- I thought it meant Blofeld was going to be the main bad guy for the rest of the movie, and was extremely let down when it was not the case.

      It's a shame because the sequence is extremely well-shot and cut, with Bond having to climb out of the back and clamber on the outside of the helicopter to get inside the cockpit and wrest control of the aircraft back before Blofeld can ram it into a building. It has a genuine sense of stakes and peril, with the helicopter performing loops and deep turns around buildings while Moore's stunt man hangs on. The back-projection work with Moore is not too shabby either, and the inter-cutting between long and process shots is well done. 

      As a FU to McClory and Blofeld, it's a dud. As a palette cleanser from the no-stakes set pieces and gadget bonanza of the late seventies, it's terrific. While the gizmos are still there (the remote control helicopter is straight of Batman), Bond has to think and fight his way out of trouble without help from Q Branch. When Moore sighs with relief after avoiding death, you believe it.

      Cue Blofeld getting tossed down a smokestack and credits.

      I have to admit I'm not a fan of the song. It's catchy enough, but a little maudlin for my taste.

      And I'm probably gonna get some more hate for this, but I'm generally not a fan of Maurice Binder's titles. It just feels like after Thunderball, he starts repeating the same stuff over and over again. Plus, For Your Eyes Only begins the trend of showing the dancing ladies' faces. It loses a little of the style and just starts feeling a little unfinished. I prefer Robert Brownjohn's stuff -- he did From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which feature clips and credits projected directly onto the models. They are atmospheric and pulpy in a way that most of Binder's are not. Granted, if Brownjohn had stuck around for a dozen movies, maybe my thoughts would be different.

      And now to the plot: A British spy ship, the St Georges, operating in the Aegean sea strikes an underwater mine and sinks. This is a problem for MI6, because the ship was carrying an ATAC machine -- a targeting computer that helps relay information about Britain's submarine fleet. Afraid that the Russkies could get to it first and cause trouble in a potential war, the top brass have one of their local contacts, Sir Timothy Havelock, try to locate the wreck.

      After he is assassinated, MI6 sends Bond to find his killer and locate the ATAC. As he becomes embroiled in this Cold War caper, Bond has to contend with two new variables -- a jocular old smuggler (Topol) and Havelock's daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet), who is on her own mission of vengeance.

      Despite the fact that Moore is notably older (53) and Bill Conti's score is a disco-driven nightmare, this movie kicks so much ass. 

      Just in terms of action, this movie has it all. I've already written way too much on the pre-credit sequence, but all the set pieces are marked by two things you do not generally get with Bond action scenes: a reliance on our hero's wits and a sense of peril.

      The car chase is based on a clever reversal of expectations. As Bond and Melina try to flee the villain's mansion, his gadget-laden supercar is blown up. Bond is then forced to make his escape in a shitty little Citreon. It's such a rubbish un-Bondlike vehicle, at one point it tips over while trying to take a corner. 

      The rest of the movie's action is constructed along similar lines, in a variety of different contexts -- chased by a psychopathic decathlete in the Italian alps; attacked by a michelin man in the submerged wreck of the St Georges; chasing a car down on foot; and finally, scrambling up a sheer cliff face while an enemy sentry above him knocks out his pitons. 

      In all of these sequences, Bond has no gizmos to fall back on, and no easy ways out. 

      The only real gadget on offer is a massive computer that Bond and Q use a crude facial recognition program to find out who his opposition is. 

      Bond and Melina eventually figure out where the wreck of the St Georges is, gain an unlikely ally and destroy the ATAC in a final melee with the villains at a mountain-top church in Greece.

      Baring a few weird shifts, the script is pretty strong here. Longtime scribe Richard Maibum was joined by producer Cubby Broccoli's step-son Michael G. Wilson, who would co-write all of Glen's Bond movies, and replaced his father as a producer on the franchise with 1995's GoldenEye.

      With Moonraker's release, the filmmakers had adapted all of the books they owned the rights to (Eon would only gain the rights to Casino Royale in 1999). And so they moved on to the various Short stories Ian Fleming had written featuring his creation.

      All of the films of the Eighties would be based, in some respect on material from these short stories, which had been collected in two collections, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy & The Living Daylights (which was a posthumous release which collected all of the remaining stories Fleming had not published in his lifetime).

      The script for For Your Eyes Only takes elements from a couple different sources: the plot to recover the ATAC is based on From Russia With Love's Lector decoder; Melina's desire for revenge and the attack on the swimming pool is taken from For Your Eyes Only, the supporting characters of Kristatos and Colombo, as well as the assault on the warehouse, are taken from Risico, and a sequence in which Melina and Bond are tied to a buoy and dragged through the coral reefs was taken from the novel Live and Let Die

      Despite all of these different sources, the script flows very well, and the new cast are generally well-rounded.

      The character Columbo, played with a surplus of charisma by the great Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), is one of the great Bond allies. A smuggler with a code of honour, he helps Bond uncover the real villain and save the day. 

      While he is not onscreen for long, Michael Gothard also makes an impression as Kristatos' hit man Locque.

      It's rare to get a henchman who manages to be effective without a distinctive look or gimmick, and somehow Gothard pulls it off. He also gets one of the series' best death scenes.

      The movie is not without flaws.

      The ski chase, while filled with great moments, goes on way too long. Conti's score, which I've already mentioned, is particularly egregious here.

      The character of Bibi, a sixteen-year-old figure skater who falls for Bond, should have been cut out entirely. Shrill and annoying, she contributes nothing to the story and serves only to emphasise the limits of Bond's lechery. While it is nice to see 50-something Roger Moore has standards, it's a weird comic subplot that feels out of place in this more strait-laced thriller.

      The villain, Kristatos, is also a bit underwhelming. Granted, he serves the story and Julian Glover plays him well, but he never gets a real signature moment that sticks in the memory (apart from the keel-hauling). 

      And the ending, featuring a talking parrot and a flirty Margaret Thatcher, feels like a completely different film. In fact, it feels more like Moore Bond than the rest of the movie.

      In the end, For Your Eyes Only is a solid action thriller with a good story, some interesting characters and strong set pieces. It's biggest flaw is that, stripped of the goofiness of its leading man's tenure, it lacks a certain distinctiveness.

      That aside, it remains an involving couple of hours. And with its back-to-basics approach and focus on Bond's ingenuity, it served as a template for future developments in the series. The scene where Bond kicks a villain's car over a cliff remains one of the series' darkest, and an early sign of where the  portrayal of the character was going.

      If you're a fan of Dalton and Craig, their darkness and grit starts here, with jolly Roger and his flared trousers. 

      Bonus trivia: French filmmaker Robert Bresson loved the movie, and brought it up in interviews. For Your Eyes Only's profits helped bring United Artists back from the brink following the release of mega flop Heaven's Gate.

      The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)

       Forgotten between the cartoonishness of Octopussy and the 'We love the Eighties!' aesthetic of Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton's first adventure has much to recommend it. For me it is the best Bond picture between OHMSS and GoldenEye.
        Following the release of For Your Eyes Only, the Bond franchise entered a rut. For Your Eyes Only was meant to mark two shifts -- the end of Moore's tenure, and the excess of the late Seventies.

        In the end, with no clear successors in place, and a rival production (1983's Never Say Never Again) featuring original Bond Sean Connery, the producers kept Moore on for two more instalments. I've already gone into my love for Octopussy, but there is no denying that movie is a schizophrenic mess. The less said about Moore's final outing, 1985's A View To A Kill, the better.

        Now 57, Moore was past the point of being believable in the lead role, and resigned following the release of his seventh film.

        His successor was another good-looking actor who had made his bones as the lead of a comedy thriller TV series: Pierce Brosnan.

        Sadly, the news broke early, which led the network responsible for Brosnan's hit series Remington Steele to pick up his option for another season.

        Unwilling to share an actor with another company, Eon had to part ways with the Irishman and a suitable substitute was quickly drafted: Timothy Dalton.

        Dalton was primarily a stage actor, and brought a completely different vision to the role. A fan of the films and the books, he had been approached to play the role when Connery bowed out in 1967, but at 25 he felt he was far too young to step into the Scotsman's shoes.

        Dalton's Bond is completely different from his predecessors. Burying himself in Fleming's books, he adopted a terse, cold persona that was far closer to the character of the novels. Unlike the others, Dalton has few one liners, and is brusque to the point of asshole-dom with female company. He is not charming, and while he has plenty of ladies, Dalton's Bond never comes across as a ladies man. He feels more like an unstable hitman one day away from going off the rails.

        Dalton is the marmite of the franchise. For some fans, his portrayal is mana from heaven. For others, he's a boring stiff who misses the wit and charisma of the character.

        For me, I'm half-and-half. It's clear Dalton is uncomfortable with the more flippant puns of the character, and does not have the same kind of 'star' charisma of the others.

        However, his intensity and more laconic take on the role remains extremely interesting to watch.

        The key difference is that, unlike Connery and Moore, where there is always a degree of distance (helped by the sense of humour), Dalton invests the character of Bond with a sense of pain -- his Bond reacts to his actions in a way that feels real (which makes the one liners always feel unnecessary).

        This investment means that Dalton manages to do something which few Bonds have done, and that is make the relationship with the Bond Girl feel believable and relatable.  For a Bond often criticised for being stiff and cold, there is a sense of genuine affection to his bonding with the cellist Kara Milovy that feels earned, rather than expected.

        The major problem with Dalton's portrayal is that it's clear the filmmakers have not quite figured out how to tailor the character of Bond to him -- the humour falls flat, and Bond's philandering never feels natural.

        Ever since Casino Royale came out, I've felt that Daniel Craig's Bond is what Dalton's Bond was striving to be -- Craig's version comes across as more naturalistic, charismatic and, what I feel is most important, funnier. Humour should never be dismissed with Bond. It's the seasoning that helps smooth over his less appealing qualities.

        It's not a fault of the performers -- it comes down to the fact that the filmmakers working with Craig took the time to figure out how come up with ways of making Craig's strengths mesh with Bond's attributes.

        Dalton never had that chance. He leapt into the franchise at short notice, which meant the script -- while different in tone and style from the Moore era -- still carried the whiff of his predecessor. This issue would also plague Licence to Kill, where the script was hampered by the 1988-89 Writers Guild strike.    

        However, while a few moments jostle, The Living Daylights represents Dalton's best showcase in the role, and taken as the protagonist of this singular adventure, he is a fine lead.

        Onto the movie!

        The first new Bond in 12 years, and it starts with a bang -- M briefs a trio of 00s in his office, then a door slides open and you realise this office is in the back of a plane.

        The agents are on a training exercise in Gibraltar and this is their final briefing. They turn and jump out of the plane, parachuting down to the island where they engage the sentries armed with paint guns.

        However, someone else is also waiting for them -- a mystery assassin who proceeds to kill the agents and leave a mysterious message (Smiert Spionam: 'Death to Spies'). Bond gives chase, kills the assassin and winds up on the deck of a yacht with a bored socialite. Cue credits.

        As a set up for a new era and a new Bond, this does the business. While the credit sequence continues the trend of being dull and uninspired, the song by a-Ha is one of my personal favourites.

        It's not a favourite of most, but it's always stuck in my head. I like the theme to Licence to Kill as well. There's something about the meshing of Bond-style music with the styles of the Eighties that is very enjoyable. Don't ask me what the lyrics mean -- I'm as lost as you are.

        After the credits, we get a look-in from Ian Fleming. The set-up for this movie is a straight adaptation of the short story that gives the movie its title.

        Bond goes to Bratislava to assist with the defection of a Russian general, Koskov (Jerome Krebbe) during a concert. The KGB has dispatched a sniper to watch him, and Bond's job is to eliminate the killer during the general's escape to their safe house.

        When Bond recognises the assassin is the beautiful cellist he was oogling during the performance, he shoots at the rifle instead. 

        Whereas the short story ends here, the movie resolves the mystery of Bond's comely opponent.

        Back in the UK, Koskov is barricaded in an MI6 safe house (a palatial country estate). He tells M that General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), the new leader of the KGB, has begun a covert war to eliminate western secret agents.

        Before his bizarre claims can be substantiated, Koskov is kidnapped by an unknown assailant dressed as a milkman.

        Every Bond has a signature villain, and Dalton's is Necros. 

        Unlike so many henchmen, Necros is a professional who is capable of doing his job. He wears disguises, is familiar with a variety of weapons and gadgets, and is physically more imposing than Bond himself. He's so badass composer John Barry gives him his own theme song.

        In a lazy summary, he's basically an evil Daniel Craig, but in terms of the series, he is a spiritual successor to Robert Shaw's superlative Red Grant (From Russia With Love). Without the gimmicks of most hench persons(?), he's just an anonymous killer who you couldn't pick out of a crowd -- which is why he is so great.

        The sequence in which he infiltrates the safe house and kidnaps the general is fantastic in its arbitrariness and brutality.

        Particularly noteworthy is the brief scrap with one of the general's minders -- it's rare that another MI6 agent is shown to be a competent fighter (how many times has a Bond movie started with a 00 dying?), and it feels like a genuine struggle where either combatant could come out on top.

        Following the general's escape, Bond smells a rat and goes on the hunt for the mysterious cellist.

        What he unearths is a complicated scheme involving Koskov, a Trump-like arms dealer, Afghan mujahideen, an icebox full of diamonds and half a billion dollars worth of heroin.

        The movie ends with a massive assault on a Soviet airbase in the middle of Afghanistan and a great, vertigo-inducing fight between Bond and Necros out the back of a cargo plane.

        The Living Daylights is terrific. The story has plenty of twists and turns, gadgets are smattered throughout, and everything feels far fresher than its been in decades. All the set pieces matter and have weight, the characters all have motivations, and Bond feels like a human being.

        As with For Your Eyes Only, the movie has some flaws.

        Though she meets the requirements of the role, Maryam d'Abo's Kara Milovy (the cellist/sniper) is not really much of a character. She lacks agency and just hangs onto the men around her.

        The bigger problem (really the only one) is the plot. It is really complicated. It's not as crazy as Octopussy's, but it suffers from the same problem: with such a complicated series of red herrings and double crosses, the stakes do not come into focus until the third act. And with two villains, the movie needs two climaxes in order to resolve the story, and it just goes on a little too long. If the movie had simply focused on General Koskov and Necros, the movie would be a stone cold classic. As is, it's still one of the best films in the franchise, but a few rungs below the true greats.

        The Living Daylights marked a brief rejuvenation for the series, where it felt like the series would have a chance to really experiment with the formula. Sadly, it took awhile for the franchise to fulfill the promise of Dalton's debut. 

        Previous reviews

        Diamonds Are Forever & Octopussy

        Quantum of Solace

        Second Look