Wednesday, 30 November 2016

CASINO ROYALE: Ten years later

In his first mission, James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes head-to-head with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an international financier of terrorism. After Le Chiffre bets against the stock market with his clients' funds and loses, he starts a high stakes poker game to quickly win it back before they find out what he's done. Bond is tasked with beating Le Chiffre and bringing him in. To help him he has Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) -- unlike his previous conquests, the combative and intelligent Vesper sees through his BS. Initially this puts Bond off, but as the game progresses and the stakes rise, the pair find themselves drawn together...

I cannot believe that Casino Royale is ten years old. It seems like only yesterday I was down at the Highland Park cinema (RIP) to catch the new Bond movie. I had heard good things going in, but I was somewhat trepidatious. The last Bond movie had been Die Another Day, a movie I had spent months looking forward to. That was the first time I remember being really disappointed with a movie, and it killed my interest in Bond for a while.

When Daniel Craig was announced as Bond, I was more interested in the other info in the announcement. The movie was going to be an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond book, Casino Royale. This was more exciting to me -- the book is the best in the series but the Bond producers had never owned the rights.  I had read it several times when I was younger, and while I enjoyed the other books, Casino Royale was the one I kept returning to.

While the other novels diverge from the movies, they follow the same basic pattern as the film series -- Bond goes on a mission, meets a beautiful woman and kills a dastardly bad guy. Casino Royale always stood out -- not only was it the only book the series had not touched (I did not know about the 1954 TV movie or 1967 spoof until much later), it went against many of my assumptions about the character: Bond does not win the mission, loses the girl and feels every second of it. While the literary character has a certain vulnerability in the other books (throwing up after killing people; getting beaten up and tortured), Casino Royale is the only one where Bond felt human. He also did not feel particularly likeable. He's a trained killer who's deadened to ordinary human feelings, and is more interested in card games and his recipe for scrambled eggs and his favourite drink than pesky things like other human beings.

In these respects (the small scale, the lack of action, Bond's ambiguity and vulnerability), I always felt Casino Royale was a cut above the other books, and felt these elements made a potential Eon-backed film impossible. So when I heard the news that Casino Royale was finally going to get an official adaptation, I was excited but a little suspicious -- I was afraid the filmmakers would try to expand the story beyond its limits, and top load it with gadgets, action and all the other unnecessary BS that had sunk Brosnan.

The filmmaking team gave me mixed feelings. On the positive side, it was going to be directed by Martin Campbell, who had made Brosnan's best movie, GoldenEye. Phil Meheux, Campbell's favourite DP and another GoldenEye alum was also coming back. The one thing that made me nervous was that the screenwriters would be Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the scribes behind Brosnan's last two movies. The addition of Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis blunted my misgivings, but I remember at the time feeling vaguely excited, but a little held-back.

And then other announcements came out. Casting. And this was where I started to get really excited.  Back in 2004, I was in hospital for a bit of surgery. I read an article about an up-and-coming actress who was making waves in Europe. I had taken a few books along for my stay, including Casino Royale. And while I was re-reading the book, I could not help but read the character of Vesper Lynd with this actress in mind. When Eva Green was cast, I could not believe it. This was also the point where I began to take this project seriously -- if a serious actress like Green was interested, then maybe there was something good here.

The next thing that made me excited was the first teaser trailer. More athletic and violent than I expected, this trailer was the first time where my preconceptions of what a Bond movie could be were shaken. It felt different. It felt cool. By the time I sat down to watch the movie, I was very excited.

The review

Craig's follow-ups have been hit-and-miss, but nothing can dent the impact of this, his first and best stab at the role. It almost would have been better if he had not made any sequels -- Casino Royale is a self-contained story that takes Bond's character as far as it can go. To watch any of Craig's other movies is to watch filmmakers -- talented no doubt -- struggle to come up with Bond-centred stories, while forgetting everything that made this movie great.

Going back to the book, one of the keys to Casino Royale's success is how small-scale it is. The stakes are high, but they are not as abstract as world annihilation. While Le Chiffre's actions will have horrible consequences, their most immediate will be the deaths of Bond and his cohorts. Like other great 'contained' genre movies like Die HardAlien or The Narrow Margin, the contained nature of the story clarifies the struggle between Bond and the villain, and creates an intimacy which makes the stakes feel more immediate.

It is here that the lack of a complicated scheme helps, because it allows the filmmakers time to spend on the characters and their relationships -- which is the main reason why Casino Royale works. It's not because of a sense of 'realism' or 'believability' -- this is, after all, a movie based around a simple game of cards, an insane parkour chase across a construction site, and a woman riding a horse along the beach. It's because the filmmakers care enough to flesh out the characters and make them relatable. As Die Hard proved, action is so much more impactful when you are invested in the characters.

To this, a lot of credit should go to screenwriter Paul Haggis. He was brought on to heavily revise the script, and while much of the basic structure is the work of Purvis and Wade, Haggis focused on fleshing out the characters, and added the third act in Venice which cements the movie. Ask any screenwriter, and third acts are the most important component.

Another person deserving of praise is director Martin Campbell. He deserves credit for honouring the visual vocabulary of the series while finding the tone and style appropriate for the story. He also deserves credit for keeping the movie's action clean and clear. He manages to shoot the action in such a way that feels visceral without cribbing from the Bourne movies' approach of hand held camera work and hyper-kinetic editing. In terms of its style, Casino Royale feels like the best eighties action movie that did not come out in the eighties.

Over and above all the spectacle, the reason Casino Royale works is the performances from the leads.

In my reviews of Spectre I made the point that the relationship between Bond and Madeline Swann felt short-changed. It's a pity that Craig's era has reverted to vacuousness of seventies Bond Girls, considering where it started. Outside of Judi Dench's M, Eva Green delivers the best female character the series has ever had. She is the only woman who can stand toe-to-toe with Bond, and the only one to ever affect Bond's character. 

Usually a female character starts strong (ala Pussy Galore) and then gets 'turned' by Bond's magnetism. In Casino Royale, this conversion is reversed. It is Vesper who sparks a glimmer of humanity in the secret agent -- and all without going between the sheets.

And now to the final element that pulls it all together.

 Daniel Craig came under a lot of unnecessary and irrelevant criticism when he was cast. Too blonde, too short, ears too big. Four films in, it is safe to say Craig proved the naysayers wrong.

Cold yet vulnerable, brutal yet suave, Craig has proven to be a great Bond. This is particularly true in Casino Royale, where Craig has the benefit of an actual character arc. Bond's arc is somewhat unique in that it is more a circle than a true progression. He starts as a killer, cold, detached and arrogant. As his relationship with Vesper develops, he becomes more human and empathetic. When Vesper betrays him, he reverts  -- only now he is even more detached from reality. When you boil it down, it puts quite a dark spin on the famous ending.

It sums up the schizophrenia of the character as a whole -- on the one hand, it's a crowd-pleasing moment. James Bond is back and better than ever. On the other hand, after spending two and half hours deconstructing this character, there is a darkly comic edge -- we're cheering a man who has lost everything and become a sociopath.

My experience watching Casino Royale is something I have rarely felt in a movie theatre. 

When I sat down, I had an idea of what a good James Bond movie was. As the movie went on, it became clear that this was something different. It became clear that Casino Royale was not just a great Bond movie like previous re-sets like The Living Daylights or GoldenEye, it was better. 

By the time the movie segued from the action-heavy first act into the casino-set Act 2, I realised something else: this was not a great adaptation of the book, it was better. The Bond of the books is a singularly despicable character -- a racist, misogynist aesthete who epitomised the kind of man Ian Fleming wished he could be. The cinematic character of Bond has always stood far apart from the literary original, but the characterisation of Casino Royale's Bond is the most fully realised of his filmic incarnations. As Film Crit Hulk said in his review, the movie is about the development of a 'damaged' man, and the reason the Bond of Casino Royale resonates in a way that previous Bonds do not is because of how believably flawed he feels. It is a fleshing out of the character in a way that feels like a natural outgrowth of the qualities we enjoy about Bond, while never dispelling his inherent mystique or sugar-coating his less appealing qualities.

By the end of the movie, as Monty Norman's theme blared triumphantly, I felt elated. It felt like a paradigm shift. All the expectations I had for Bond movies, everything I held as the high watermark for the franchise -- every preconceived notion of what a Bond movie could be had been wiped from my brain.

This was not a Bond movie. This was a great movie. Above and beyond its status as a Bond movie, Casino Royale is one of the best action movies I have ever seen. 

Previous reviews
For Your Eyes Only & The Living Daylights

Diamonds Are Forever & Octopussy

Quantum of Solace

Second Look

Friday, 25 November 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Rundown (Peter Berg, 2003)

Released at a time when this kind of R-rated action comedy was going out of style, The Rundown bombed on release but has gained a big following in the years since it left theatres.

The Rock plays Beck, a leg-breaker who dreams of retiring and becoming the owner of his own restaurant. In between cracking heads, he's making notes for recipes. His boss wants him to do one last job -- rescue his wayward son Travis (Seann William Scott), who is galavanting around Brazil.

On arriving at Travis's location, a small mining town nicknamed 'Helldorado', Beck gets on the wrong side of the mine's tyrannical ruler(?), Hatcher (Christopher Walken). It turns out Travis has been hunting for an ancient golden object called El Gato. Hatcher wants the artefact and refuses to let Beck take Travis back to the States.

Beck tries to take Travis anyway, and winds up in the jungle. Cue native martial artists, horny monkeys and Rosario Dawson.  

Also known as Welcome to the Jungle, The Rundown is a great throwback to 80s action flicks. The action is great and over-the-top, the humour sprinkled throughout and His Rockiness makes for a terrific one-man-army action star with charisma to burn.    

Over a decade after it came out, The Rundown remains Dwayne Johnson's best action vehicle. Even with his role in the Fast and Furious movies, no movie has been a better distillation of his humour, physicality or charm than this movie.

The rest of the cast are great. While there are shades of Stifler, Seann William Scott is a great foil for Johnson, while Dawson does her usual thing and classes the movie up as a local bar manager/freedom fighter. Walken has played bad guys before, and he is suitably reptilian as the irredeemable shit who gets in Beck's way.

Peter Berg is an inconsistent director who seems to have gone respectable recently. He's dropped the ball with his later attempts at popcorn fare (Battleship, the second half of Hancock), but The Rundown remains one of his truly great movies. He manages to find a tone and style that suit his inexperienced star, and keeps the whole thing looking good and moving at a clip.

If you are a fan of the Rock, buddy cop movies, or Romancing the Stone, The Rundown is the movie for you.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Out of Time (Carl Franklin, 2003)

This neat little thriller was one of the first discoveries I made on Netflix, and it's become a weekend favourite.

Denzel Washington stars as the easy-going small-town police chief Matthias Lee Whitlock. He's currently going through a divorce from his wife, Alex (Eva Mendez), a cop. He has moved on to having an affair with local woman Anne (Sanaa Lathan). Her husband is a thuggish ex-foootball player-turned-security guard (Dean Cain). 

When the movie starts, Whitlock is in a good mood. He has just made a major drug bust -- including $550,000 in cash. Whitlock's easy life is upturned when Anne learns she has terminal cancer. Resigned to her fate, Anne makes him the sole beneficiary of her million dollar life insurance policy. In an attempt to get her an experimental treatment that may save her life, Whitlock lends her the drug money.

And then Anne and her husband die in a suspicious house fire. Suddenly, Whitlock finds himself scrambling to a) figure out what is going on and b) stay ahead of the police -- especially his increasingly suspicious wife. 

Out of Time is directed by the underrated Carl Franklin (One False MoveDevil in a Blue Dress). He keeps things moving, and handles the more ludicrous set pieces with a sure hand. Washington is his usual charming self, and the rest of the cast are solid.

Out of Time is the cinematic equivalent of one of those thrillers you read on vacation. While it doesn't re-invent the wheel, it features a solid premise, good characters and an escalating sense of tension. In other words, it does the job it sets out to do, nothing more and nothing less. 

An enjoyable diversion and worth a look.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, 1992)

I caught this movie a fews weeks back and really liked it. 
Eddie Murphy stars as ladies man Marcus Graham, a hot shot ad exec who spends his off-hours ticking off one-night stands. He cloaks this behaviour by claiming he has high standards, but Marcus is just a player. Marcus's life is thrown into turmoil when he meets Jacqueline Broyer (Robin Givens). 

Not only does she undo his patented seduction techniques, she has also taken the job Marcus felt he was entitled to (he had sex with the head of the company, so he thought he had the deal sealed). 

Now not only is Jacqueline his new boss, she is his female equivalent. When they finally do the horizontal mambo, Marcus finds himself falling for her -- much to his surprise. When Jacqueline blows him off in a ironic echo of his own philandering ways, Marcus begins to realise just how alike they really are. Will Marcus change his ways and find love?

Boomerang is chiefly famous for three things: as the movie that broke Halle Berry to a wide audience; Grace Jones's batshit supporting turn as  Helen StrangĂ© and the sweet New Jack Swing soundtrack (featuring the likes of Boys II Men, Toni Braxton and Johnny Gill).

Aside from these qualities, the movie is a pretty by-the-numbers romantic comedy lifted by strong performances and a good smattering of laughs. The movie's biggest laughs come out of the movie's more bizarre tangents.

The subplot involving Grace Jones's barmy celebrity StrangĂ© is wild -- she is introduced driving a chariot pulled by muscle men in hot pants, and becomes the star of a perfume ad that looks like the unholy love child of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.  

The underrated David Alan Grier and Martin Lawrence are also good as Murphy's best friends. Grier is a talented actor, famous for his stint on In Living Color, and this is one of his better showcases. 

One the biggest surprises was Halle Berry as Rachel Lewis, the 'good' girl who helps Marcus see the light. This kind of role can be a real slog if the writing is not good, but Rachel is far more interesting than that. Berry is so winsome and smart in the part I could not believe this was the same actress from Die Another Day/Catwoman/Dark Tide/almost every movie she's made this millennium.

Berry's been on a downward swing since her Oscar win in 2001. With no other research, I would like to offer a thesis as to why Berry's star fell. Berry is a good actress, but she does not have the charisma of a movie star. She is ridiculously attractive, and I think the combo of her being a solid actress with looks fooled people into thinking she was enough of a 'star' personality to sell movies on.  Watching Boomerang, it becomes obvious her strength is as a supporting player. She can hold her own with Murphy, but she never overshadows him -- she fits into her role but at no point does it feel like a bigger star waiting to break out. Watching her other roles from the Nineties might change my mind, but in her post-Monsters Ball star roles (Die Another Day, Catwoman, the X-Men movies) Berry never fills the screen in the way that stars of her generation do. 

ANYWAY. Boomerang, kids. It's a good rom com. Check it out. And track down the soundtrack on Youtube. It's great.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

SCREEN GEMS THRILLERS: The Perfect Guy (2015)

And now this is more like it. Like clockwork, Screen Gems figured out that there was an audience out there that was not being catered to and decided to stake September as the patch to put out another thriller targeting the African American audience.

Leah (Sanaa Lathan) is a  successful businesswoman with a good boyfriend, Dave (Morris Chestnut). Though her life seems perfect, all is not right. At 35, Leah is ready to start a family, but Dave is not. This impasse causes them to break up. Depressed, Leah soon meets another man, Carter (Michael Ealy) and Leah quickly falls for the mysterious stranger. At first he seems to be the man of her dreams, but very quickly the 'perfect guy' turns out to be something else...

Technically the most competent of the movies in this 'series', The Perfect Guy actually tries to develop some suspense. The director seems to know that peripheral action and use of wide angles and focus work better than jump scares.

With increased competence however, comes a lack of silliness — there’s a great beat where it is revealed the ‘perfect guy’ hiding beneath Sanaa Lathan’s bed which is worth a giggle or three, but otherwise there’s nothing to match the epic cat fight at the end of Obsessed or Taraji P. Henson repeatedly smashing stuff over Idris Elba’s head.

The performances are a bit rote — Lathan is a fine lead but Chestnut is stuck in the colourless ‘good boyfriend’ role and Michael Ealy is miscast as Lathan’s psycho boyfriend. With his big eyes and light voice, he is never as intimidating as the movie wants you to think he is. With a different script and director he could have been a nice mis-direct, but like ObsessedThe Perfect Guy is not interested in build up or subtlety — the reveal of his psychosis happens in an instant. There’s no gradual escalation to make it more ambiguous and scary.

Overall, it is something of a step-up: the characters are not nearly as stupid as in the previous movies,  but it suffers from the same lack of imagination. 

Previous reviews

Obsessed (2009)

No Good Deed (2014)

Monday, 14 November 2016


It's weird that, despite Obsessed's success, Screen Gems did not immediately try for a follow-up. Instead we had to wait six years for this hostage thriller. Starring Obsessed's leading man Idris Elba and the always excellent Tarji P. Henson, No Good Deed is easily the most generic movie on this list.

Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is a serial killer who was caught on a manslaughter charge. He’s a ‘malignant narcissist' -- we know this because the guy on the parole board says it 5 or 6 times. It is somewhat questionable when it’s an old white southern gent telling the rest of the parole board that a black man should not be released from prison. Anyway Colin escapes from his prison van after the parole hearing. 

Henson plays Terry, a prosecutor-turned-mum who misses having a sense of agency and purpose. While her husband is at work, she is stuck at home minding her daughter. Leslie Bibb plays Henson’s bestie Meg, a sex-crazed woman who spends her screen time oogling everyone with a Y chromosome and pushing Terry to get some extra-marital action. Terry's banal existence is shattered when Colin slips into her home and takes her hostage. 

This is a weird statement to make but this movie is hilariously boring. The script is an endurance test for the viewer, as our central characters keep acting in the dumbest ways possible. The plot can be summarised as this:

Henson hits Elba on the head with a vase.

ELBA: Don't do that.


Elba turns his back. Henson hits him with a poker.

ELBA: Don't do that.


Repeat that formula about 15 more times and you get the general idea. It's basically the makings of a great drinking game.

The direction is plodding, with no attempt at atmosphere or tension beyond colour grading. Henson and Elba are okay in their respective roles, but they have almost nothing to work with. I would say the movie makes you wish they were in a much better movie, but this movie will have you in a coma by minute 20. 

Definitely the worst film in this cycle. 

Previous reviews

Obsessed (2009)

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Screen Gems thrillers & Obsessed (2009) review

When you are in the mood for something mindlessly entertaining, there is nothing as enjoyable as an erotic thriller. They are so generic -- you know exactly what you are going to get. Some blood, some skin, maybe some good suspense. Sometimes you'll get a great one, like Gone Girl. But most of the time you get movies like Jade (William Friedkin, 1995), Final Analysis (Phil Joanau, 1992) or Colour of Night (Richard Rush, 1994).

Screen Gems is a division of Sony Pictures, and in recent years has developed a line of thrillers aimed at the African American market. What makes these movies interesting is that they take recognisable templates from 80s and 90s hits and race-swap the characters. It is refreshing and rare to see genre films made with non-white leads where race is never brought up. These movies have all scored at the US box office, showing that they are hitting a nerve with viewers who want to see people onscreen who look like them.

If you are interested in this phenomenon, I suggest you check out Scott Mendelssohn's pieces on this new trendWhile none of these movies are great, they are (mostly) fun to watch (sometimes not for the reasons the filmmakers intended), and offer a glimpse at the kind of colour-blind casting Hollywood should do more often.

Obsessed (2009)

The inaugural release of Screen Gems' run of thrillers, this stars a pretty strong cast: Idris Elba, Beyonce Knowles and Ali Larter.

Elba plays Derek Charles, a high flier at a finance firm. He's married to Sharon (Knowles), who used to be his secretary. They've had a child and have just moved into a new home. Life is looking pretty good for Derek -- until he meets the new temp, Lisa Sheridan (Larter). Lisa becomes infatuated with Derek and -- after he rejects her advances -- begins to stalk him. 

For the most of the movie's runtime, Obsessed feels like the first draft of a good movie. The plot is rote, the cast are solid, but it just needs to be screwed around with. There's a lack of originality here that grates. Every time the movie is about 'go there', it chickens out.

One of the problems is that this kind of trashy erotic thriller has been done before AND the movies you think of in that genre were all rated R. Obsessed is PG-13, and feels it. It should feel dirty and dangerous, but the movie is sanitised. 

The movie is so black and white — no pun intended — that it never becomes genuinely engaging. The good characters are completely good; the villain completely crazy and evil. Idris Elba’s character doesn’t even have sex with Lisa — unlike the erotic thrillers it is patterned after, the threat is completely external to the central couple. Traditionally, these movies are always based on a moment of moral weakness — there is never a moment like that here. They don’t even handle the dynamic of a false rape accusation. Ali Larter lurches straight into psycho mode with no build-up or real cause — she’s just a caricature. The movie expects us to know how these movies go, but does not provide a believable series of circumstances to contextualise Lisa's psychosis.  

I said at the outset that these movies ignore racial politics, but in the case of Obsessed, this is a massive blindspot. But the filmmakers don't touch on anything else -- there is no attempt to explore office relations or sexual politics or just marital discord. It's just so safe and boring. There are sections of this movie where you just wish the filmmakers will do something off book

Now you're probably wondering why I bothered watching this movie. The answer is three words: 'Beyonce cat fight'. In the last 10 minutes, Beyonce and Ali Larter go at it in the most hilariously drawn out and brutal fight imaginable.

You almost expect each fighter to come out to their own theme music ala the WWE. They plow through Elba's expensive house, and just trash the whole place. Pottery is broken, walls smashed to kindle and glass tables shattered. It is awesome. 

What makes it better is that Beyonce clearly knew this was her big moment and telegraphs it throughout the movie. Every time she has a confrontation with Larter, Beyonce gives some variation of the 'If you touch my family, I WILL KILL YOU' speech -- it's almost like she's playing for the trailer. What seems like over-acting at first is actually totally appropriate when Beyonce is throwing her rival through a wall. 

In summary, Obsessed is a pretty average thriller lifted by an absolutely bonkers finale. Check it out.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: True Memoirs of an International Assassin

I used to be a fan of Kevin James, back when he was in King of Queens and had his scene-stealing supporting turn in Hitch. Nowadays, after his 10 000 collaborations with Adam Sandler, I am... less onboard. However the premise for this movie sounded interesting and Sandler was not in sight.

Kevin James stars as Sam Larson. Sam is an accountant who spends his downtime writing the titular spy thriller based off research from his friend, an elderly Israeli who used to work as an analyst for  Mossad. When his opportunistic publisher releases his book as a true story, Sam is dragged into a vast conspiracy involving the President of Venezuela (Kim Coates), the rebel leader trying to topple him (Andy Garcia) and the Russian drug cartel leader (Andrew Howard) who wants to run the country a different way. 

Sam soon finds himself in over his head when all three shady characters hire him to kill each other. With help of Rosa Bolivar (Zulay Henao), a DEA agent who has been abandoned by her agency, Sam is forced to become the action hero he fantasies about being. 

This movie is touching greatness. The concept is cool, the contours of an interesting story are there, and the cast is solid, but there is something undercooked about True Memoirs of an International Assassin.  

James is affable and surprisingly believable as an action star, the rest of the cast are fine. Henao is good in an underwritten role, Garcia is wasted and Ron Rifkin -- so good in everything -- deserves more screen time. The villains are underwhelming. Andrew Howard is not scary or funny enough to really leave an impact. Kim Coates is great as reluctant president and CIA puppet Cueto, but he's barely in it. It's a pity, because he is probably the most interesting character in the piece -- he's clearly a Gringo, complains about the country he runs, and yearns to go back to his shitty life in San Diego. How the hell did he end up here? The movie never bothers to answer that question.

It's the same problem with the other supporting players -- they feel like archetypes, rather than people. This does not have to be a problem if the characters were interesting but they are not eccentric or weird enough to be memorable on that level.

The movie is directed by Jeff Wadlow. While the comedy and violence are better pitched than his last effort, Kick-Ass 2, there is not enough of it. Part of it may be that Wadlow does not have the strongest handle on the material -- the action stuff is generally well-shot, and the smaller comedy beats hit, but they never feel of a piece. Whoever shot second unit on the action scenes knows what they are doing, but Wadlow botches integrating them into the movie as a whole. 

Set pieces feel short-changed in the editing room, but they also suffer from an inconsistent tone. There is a great set piece involving Rosa fighting the Russian while in the middle of a ballroom of dancing couples. This is a funny concept, as both characters pretend to just be another couple for the guards around the room, and then throw down like MMA fighters every time the crowd masks their movements. But Wadlow cuts around the action -- almost like he's too afraid to let it play out naturally. The scene is kind of amusing, but it feels less than what it could be.

Ultimately, while it's passably entertaining, True Memoirs of an International Assassin feels like a really promising 20-page treatment that got shot before it could be fleshed out into a feature-length movie.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Baaghi (Sabbhir Khan, 2016)

I unironically enjoy Bollywood movies. Sure, they can go on way too long (even Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, my favourite Bollywood movie, could lose about half an hour), and can be melodramatic as hell (2003's Dil Ka Rishta has the most insane last 5 minutes of any movie I've seen), but they can still be great fun. 

“I’m willing to die for her. Are you?”

This movie has come under fire for ripping off The Raid. I find this accusation limited. It also rips off The Karate Kid, any martial arts movie about a rebel who has to avenge the death of his master, Romeo and Juliet, soap adverts, eighties music videos and the cultural sensitivity of a Golan-Globus action movie. 

At the beginning, I was kind of in love with this movie. We start with a beautiful young actress Sia (Shraddha Kapoor) getting kidnapped by gangsters from a film set. Her father, the movie's producer, then tracks down the one man who can save her.

We are then  introduced to our hero, Ronny (Tiger Shroff) performing a handstand on two fingers. Awesome. He's Sia's former boyfriend who, due to melodramatic BS revealed later, has no interest in helping her.But then Sia's dad offers money -- lots of money.
Turns out Ronny needs some dough. His (only?) friend, a little boy with intellectual disabilities, is sick and the doctor is leaving in a few days unless our hero can put up the dough for the boy's operation. Motive done.

Say what you will about Bollywood and bloated running times — Baaghi starts with a bang. In the first eight minutes, we’ve been introduced to our heroes and the plot has been set in motion. Hollywood action movies have forgotten the art of cutting to the chase. 

But then the movie then goes on for another two hours, and you wonder why they bothered.

Cue a really long flashback in which we learn about Ronny and Sia’s past romance. It is basically the second act of Karate Kid, complete with a variation on the old ‘chores as training’ montage. Ronny is your typical rebellious teen who has been sent to a martial arts school by his dying father.  He finds purpose at the school under the strict tutelage of his master Guruswamy (Shaurya Bharadwaj), and meets the beautiful Sia. Cue too many musical montages and they are in love.

Clearly, the focus was on making the action sweet, but I wish the dance numbers packed the same level of inventiveness as the action scenes. These love montages are really horrible -- they look like rejected Hanson videos from the 90s. 

A word about our leads. Tiger Shroff is a fine physical talent, but his performance is a little forced. He convinces as a teen douchebag in the early scenes but he's too good looking to convince as a hardened badass. Based off this movie, I can tell that Shraddha Kapoor is REALLY pretty. And that's about it. She's a big deal, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt here. The script is clearly at fault -- Sia is just meant to be the glittering jewel that our hero has to save from the villains. Their chemistry is... nonexistent. It's hard to figure out why they all for each other, aside from the fact that they are the best-looking people in the movie.  

Back to the flashback. Guruswamy has a son, Raghav (Sudheer Babu), the pride of the school who moonlights as a crime kingpin running a series of illegal fight clubs across south east Asia. He is our villain, and the man responsible for Sia's kidnapping at the beginning of the movie. Like Ronny, he becomes obsessed with Siya and proves it by poisoning his father when he gets in the way. Raghav tries to kill Ronny, but our hero manages to outwit him and escape.

Back in the present, Ronny has arrived in Bangkok where Raghav has Sia imprisoned in a massive skyscraper. At this point I was getting impatient. So far this movie felt like a boring Karate Kid with patricide. I wanted what all those angry fanboy articles promised: The Raid with musical numbers. At this point the movie becomes insanely racist toward Thai people -- the women are either dumb or hookers; the men are all grungy gangsters. It felt like something out of a Chuck Norris movie from the 80s.

Just as the movie appears to be ending, the movie has to throw in a pointless double blind involving a faked death. This subplot goes on for what feels like four hours. Finally in the last 30 minutes, Ronny arrives at the building and kick-punches his way to the penthouse for a final showdown with Raghav.

Final thoughts? Baaghi is not the movie I thought it was going to be. It was way too long, way too generic and featured two mutually exclusive subplots involving disabled characters which are the most randomly offensive things I've seen in a movie since The Do-Over. There is so much movie here I would love to see someone have a go at cutting it down and focusing on the through-line of Ronny rescuing Sia and getting revenge on Raqhav.

Ultimately, Baaghi's pilfering is fascinating for awhile, but the acting and the script are so overwrought and uninspired, the movie runs out of steam before The Raid-style finale finally wheezes into view.

Friday, 4 November 2016

DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (Joseph Ellison, 1979)

I've been curious about this movie for a few years now, but I could never find it. It recently popped up on a certain popular video-sharing site, hence...

Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) lives with his invalid mother in a big rambling house on the outskirts of town. By day, he works in a furnace. By night, he is at his mother's beck and call. What people don't know is that since childhood Donny's mother routinely punished him by holding his arms over the gas stove.

When the movie starts, Donny is already a few matches short of a full box. When a colleague is burned in an accident at the beginning of the movie, Donny does nothing to help. He just watches the poor man burn.

When his tyrannical mother dies, Donny tips over into full-on dementia. Realising he is still not free of his mother's influence, Donny takes his frustrations out in a uniquely appalling way -- by kidnapping women he finds attractive and burning them to death with a flamethrower in a room of his house that he has covered in sheet metal.

Don't Go In The House is not a perfect movie. It borrows heavily from Psycho, doesn't have much plot and some of the supporting players are god-awful. Despite its flaws, Don't Go In The House is a pretty effective thriller.

Despite the killer's modus operandi, the film does not dwell on it. Director Joseph Ellison  shoots the first burning sequence with no cutaways and it is brutally effective, but he leaves the rest of Donny's murders to the viewer's imagination.

DOP Oliver Wood (now most famous for the first three Bourne movies) gives the film a cold but atmospheric look -- the film feels very lived-in, in that way the 70s horror movies are, with a visceral bluntness which is very disturbing without tipping over into feeling ridiculous.

Donny's occasional visions -- in which he is attacked by the cadavers of his dead mother and victims -- are just as frightening as his actions. Ellison strikes a balance between an objective and subjective view of the protagonist that keeps the viewer on their toes. There are points where the film makes you feel like you're stuck in Donny's head, yet there is always a distance between the camera and Donny -- he is a pathetic creature, yet still too alien to truly empathise with. It's an uneasy tension that makes the film far more memorable and disturbing than any of its individual 'signature' moments.

On that count, the movie falls outside of traditional formulas. Released in 1979, Don't Go In The House has the benefit of having been made in a time before 'slasher' movies were a thing, and so it lacks many of the conventions one would expect -- there are no teens, no summer camps and -- despite his iconic furnace garb -- Donny is not presented as some kind of anti-heroic one-man-army ala Jason Vorhees.

In terms of set pieces, the movie does boast some highlights -- as I said, the first burning is extremely brutal and shot in an unflinching way. There is a nightmare scene set on a beach which boasts some amazing visuals involving jets of fire shooting into the sky. And there is a scene set at a disco where Donny tries -- and fails -- to act like a normal human being which has to be seen to be believed.

Despite the fact that the movie is clearly intended to be a drive-in cash grab, the subject matter, and the way Ellison and Grimaldi present it, prevents Don't Go In The House from feeling like some kind of escapist thrill ride. By the same token, it never carries the same air of sleaze that most exploitation movies of this era have -- there's no focus on pain, relatively little gore and the only misogyny is that radiating from Donny.

Ultimately, Don't Go In The House is an odd beast that doesn't really fit in any boxes. It falls between respectable horror and flat-out exploitation movie, but boasts enough unique qualities to make it worth a look.