Saturday, 24 June 2017

JOSEPH H. LEWIS TRIPLE BILL

Back in the golden age of Hollywood, there were various levels of films released. At the top were the A pictures, which had the big stars, the big budgets and the big directors. Below them were the B movies, and below those were the programmers, which were even shorter and lower budget. With runtimes of just over an hour, the idea was that they could be sold on a double bill with another movie.

One of the most well-regarded directors of these 'quickies' was Joseph H. Lewis. Working with low budgets, Lewis had a special genius for devising visual strategies that could cover for the lack of dollars and running time.

Next week, the Auckland Film Society will be hosting a screening of Lewis's most famous movie, the 1949 crime classic Gun Crazy. As a prelude to that review, the Midnight Ramble takes a look at three of his movies that serve as perfect examples of his gift for making a lot out of very little.

My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

A young woman looking for work in London, Julia Ross (Nina Foch) finds a job working as a secretary for a well-to-do family. After she spends the night at their residence, Julia wakes up to find herself in a completely different place: a manor house in Cornwall. Her employers now call her 'Marion', and treat her like she is an invalid. It soon becomes clear that she is a pawn in some kind of mad scheme involving the family and the dead woman she has been made to impersonate...

This movie is boatloads of fun - the 65 minute runtime flies time. No scene is wasted, and the budget is never visible. The plot is a distaff combination of tropes from gothic melodramas like Gaslight

While Foch is solid as the title character, the cast is notable for the actors playing the villains. Dame May Whitty is chiefly famous for playing kindly old ladies. Here she has a great time sending up her image as a duplicitous old matriarch, Mrs Hughes. In a more conventional vein, George Macready plays her unstable offspring, Ralph. Macready is famous for playing the villain in Gilda, and is a standout here. A childlike sadist kept in check by his mother, Macready's Ralph is the best thing in the movie.


There really isn't much to the movie. It's just meant to be a solid time-waster, and as such, it does a great job. Joseph H. Lewis directs the whole thing with economy, but manages to inject moments of style and atmosphere (particularly a tense sequence in which a terrified Foch is tormented by an a mysterious intruder in her darkened bedroom).

While no masterpiece (some of the bit players can't hide their American accents -- they sound like Dick Van Dyke), My Name Is Julia Ross is a fine little potboiler and a fun introduction to Lewis's thrifty talents.

The film was later remade in 1987 as Dead of Winter, by Arthur Penn.

So Dark the Night (1946)

Henri Cassin (Steven Geray), a celebrated Paris detective takes a long-deserved holiday to the countryside. The middle-aged detective quickly falls in love with a young debutant - although their romance is curtailed by a jealous rival. When the debutant and her former boyfriend turn up dead, Cassin goes on the hunt for the murderer. Plagued by mocking notes from the killer, the detective grows increasingly despondent as the bodies pile up. But he has to act fast - the killer has one more victim in his sights...


The movie ends with a real humdinger of a twist: Ever dedicated to his craft, Cassin follows the clues back to their logical source: himself. A rather twisted take on Hercule Poirot, in the film's best scene the detective lays out the evidence to his superior and demands that he be arrested.

Steven Geray is an effective, unconventional lead. He is neither handsome nor young - at least by Hollywood standards - but he is incredibly sympathetic, and handles the character's shift into mono-mania with tact and understatement. Even when Cassin does go off the deep-end, it never comes off as hammy.


Unlike Julia Ross, the supporting cast are completely anonymous - there are no familiar faces here, and they all fit into their roles effectively. But apart from Geray, there is no one that really stands out.

More of a traditional whodunit than his previous effort, So Dark The Night is a terrific little picture that looks and feels nothing like Julia Ross. In fact, whereas the short running time worked for Julia Ross's more conventional plot line, the more character-based So Dark The Night could have benefited from more space for character development.

While neither of these films would rank as masterpieces, they are effective and entertaining examples of low budget genre cinema. While they are not as flashy as Lewis's more famous work, both My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night showcase his ability to convey story and atmosphere with an extremely limited palette.

Both movies are available free online.

The Big Combo (1955)
"A woman doesn't care how a man make a living, only how he makes love..."

I saw this movie a few years back when I was on a noir kick. Directed by Gun Crazy's Joseph H. Lewis, The Big Combo is famous as one of the most violent and stylish noir of the classic period.


Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is a cop obsessed: First, with bringing down the gangsters who run his town, including their preening leader, Mr Brown (Richard Conte); and second, with Brown's  girlfriend  (Jean Wallace).


 Chiefly notable for cinematographer John Alton's artful use of chiaroscuro and Lewis's inspired direction, The Big Combo makes up for a fairly rote story with an incredibly vivid visual style. 

The film is stuffed with remarkable scenes: a torture sequence involving a hearing aid is shot with a single overhead light, throwing the victim and his attackers into darkness; an old man  loses his hearing aid before he is shot dead - in a POV shot, we watch gangsters silently shoot at the screen.

The film was infamous in its day for its controversial content - both in terms of its violence and its sexuality. While he uses brute force to get his way, Mr Brown's forte is seduction. Unlike the typical gangsters of Classic Hollywood, Brown bears a closer resemblance to the femme fatales of noir, using his sexual prowess and charm to keep Susan under his control. In one of the film's most bravura sequences, Lewis shoots Susan in an extremely intimate close-up while Brown descends below the frame. 

And then there are Brown's gay henchmen, who - in a daring move - are briefly shown sharing the same bed.

    The cast are a bit of a mixed bag.

    Cornel Wilde is incredibly dull as the protagonist. His obsession with Susan merits some Vertigo-style neurosis but Wilde plays Diamond with one setting: good cop. It's a cliche we've seen a million times before, and Conte brings nothing new to it. His wife Jean Wallace plays Susan, and she is cut from the same boring cloth as her real-life husband, but the script does not give her a lot to do.

    The star of the cast is Richard Conte as Brown. Urbane and arrogant, he is far more sophisticated and appealing than the stolid cop. It's easy to see why Susan could be seduced by a man like him. He steals the movie every time he's onscreen.


    A few familiar faces turn up in the supporting cast. Brian Donlevy is pretty subdued as Brown's second-in-command, while future spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef plays one of Brown's henchmen.

    Aside from its visual style, the film is notable for its great brassy score by David Raksin. While most noir use orchestral scores (ala Double Indemnity) but Raksin, taking inspiration from the dingy clubs and back alleys of the film, and uses a big band sound to evoke the sleazy atmosphere of the film's underworld. It's terrific.

    However, despite these attributes, The Big Combo is no masterpiece. The script is pedestrian, and the gradual fall of Brown's empire is fairly unsurprising. It is a testament to the talents of the behind-the-scenes talent that The Big Combo is as memorable as it is.

    It is a flashy showcase for Lewis, and notable for some offbeat touches, but ultimately the movie comes up a bit short.

    Friday, 23 June 2017

    AH-NULD ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Predator & The Running Man

    2017 represents the 30th anniversary for two of Arnold Schwarzenegger's most famous movies, Predator and The Running Man. Here's a retrospective review.

    Predator (dir. John McTiernan)
    One of Arnie's most iconic movies, as well as one of the best, Predator also represented a breakthrough for director John McTiernan, who would follow up this movie with two more action classics, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October.



    A group of commandos are sent to the South American jungle to rescue some hostages. After the operation is concluded, they have to make their way through the dense jungle to reach the border and safety. What they don't count on is a mysterious hunter who is looking to turn them all into trophies...

    One of the best action movies ever made, Predator strikes a near-perfect balance between OTT action and genuine tension. 

    This is also the movie where the Ah-nuld we all know emerged. Before Predator, Schwarzenegger is stiff as a board. Sometimes this works (Conan and The Terminator), but mostly it's terrible (Raw Deal and Commando). In Predator, viewers finally get a look at the swaggering, cigar-chomping, one liner-spouting man-mountain we all know and love.


    In his book Action Speaks Louder, Eric Lichtenfeld notes that Predator is the first movie where it feels like Arnie can lose, and it is really true. It helps that he is fighting an alien who is bigger than he is, but it is also a testament to director John McTiernan's talents as a filmmaker. Unlike most of the other directors Schwarzenegger was working with at the time, McTiernan manages to bring out a certain level of vulnerability which does not feel wooden. Especially during the third act, Dutch's panic feels real.

    The other component which makes this movie a success is the focus on a team. It's rare that Schwarzenegger shares the screen with comparably outsized macho figures, and it makes the movie far more interesting. Jesse Ventura has made the comment that in order for the Predator to come across as a believable threat for Schwarzenegger, it has to kill people who are more macho and badass than the Austrian Oak. While his comment is clearly an attempt to push himself, there is an element of truth to it.


    The first two acts of the movie are all about establishing Arnie AND his team as competent special forces soldiers. Unlike most slasher movies (which Predator resembles), the script takes time to give each of the team members a few characteristics. During the opening action scene, we get a sense of how they work as a team, and once the Predator starts to hunt them, how they work under stress.
    By the time the alien has torn through Ventura's Blaine, Bill Duke's Mac, Sonny Landham's Billy, Richard Chaves' Poncho and Carl Weathers' Dillon, not only do we get an escalation in tension, but also a better sense of what Dutch is up against, as each kill reveals more of the Predator's talents and weapons.

    Famously, the title character's design was not finalised until after shooting had started. In fact, production had to shut down before the shooting of the third act. And it's a good thing they did: as designed by maestro Stan Winston, and embodied by 7'2" Kevin Peter Hall (who also played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons), the Predator is one of the best villains in sci-fi.


    The third act is the thing that shoves Predator into the upper echelons. Stripped of his team and weapons, Dutch has to become a primordial hunter in order to beat his foe - using intelligence, rocks and fire to defeat his superior foe. In a weird way, it's the one time Arnie feels the most like an everyman, albeit one more along the lines of classical heroes like Beowulf than John McClane. The movie becomes a one-on-one contest, where the emphasis is on strategy and suspense, rather than gunfire. The way the scene plays out keeps the viewer constantly on their toes, as Dutch attempts to confound and neutralise the Predator's heat vision and invisibility.  Because McTiernan emphasises his pain and fear, drawing out their struggle, when Dutch finally wins, it feels like a genuine victory.

    Predator is the perfect example of a great action movie that does not rely on a massive set piece as an ending. This is true of a lot of the great action movies of this era - the endings to The Terminator, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are fairly small, intimate fights, with the battered protagonist facing off against their main nemesis. It's a type of dramatic resolution that we don't see any more (think of the ending to almost every single Marvel movie).

    To sum it all up, Predator is a terrific flick that remains just as entertaining now as it did thirty years ago.

    The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser)
    Released in November of 1987, The Running Man is based on a novel by Stephen King, writing under his pen name Richard Bachmann.



    The present. America's economy has collapsed and the country has turned into a fascistic police state where the President has an agent, fake news is omnipresent and the most powerful man in the country is a game show host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson).

    Police helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Ah-nuld) is monitoring a food riot in Bakersfield, California, when he is ordered to open fire on the crowd. When he refuses, his crew-mates arrest him and began the attack. Tarred as the 'butcher of Bakersfield', Richards is set up as a scapegoat and sent to prison.


    Two years from now, Richards will have to become a contestant on the most popular reality show in the history of television: The Running Man. If he expects to gain his freedom, Richards will have to pit wits and strength against a group of 'stalkers' as he runs across the deadly game zone...

    if Dutch in Predator is the Arnie star persona reaching maturity, The Running Man is a throw-back to his earlier roles. Arnie is fine, but he is nowhere near as natural or charismatic as he is in Predator. In fact the movie is a great example of how unique his persona is, and the talent required to create suitable vehicles for him.


    Like Conan and Raw Deal, it repeats the folly of trying to give Arnie a love interest and friends. As Tom Shone wrote in Blockbuster, Arnie's forte is not chemistry, it's physics. The interest of watch Schwarzenegger is watching his out-sized body smash and destroy buildings and people. Occasionally, with a filmmaker like John McTiernan or James Cameron, you can get more out of him, but in this case they really should not have tried.

    This love interest is Amber, played by Maria Conchita Alonzo. Ah-nuld meets her when he goes to his brother's apartment to find out that he has been arrested and Amber has moved in. Their relationship is very uncomfortable to watch.



    Apart from having no chemistry, the filmmakers do not even attempt to hide the reason why she is in the movie. We are introduced to Alonzo while she s working out in her lingerie. She is quickly captured by Ah-nuld, who ties her to her aerobics machine in a very fetishistic pose (she is still in the lingerie). The rest of the movie basically alternates between her being antagonised by Arnold and a target for rape by the most despicable of the Stalkers, Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth). It's really odious.

    The best character in the movie is the villain, Damon Killian.


    Chewing the scenery like its his name on the movie poster, Dawson is magnificent. He's another Arnie villain who is not comparable in size or strength (ala Bennett in Commando), but what he lacks in muscles he makes up for in ego. Appropriately, Dawson was a former gameshow host (most famous for hosting Family Feud) and he drew on his own experiences to augment and refine his role, making Killian into the ultimate show biz asshole - if that asshole had control over the police and the Department of Justice.

    While I don't like this movie, I LOVE Killian. He makes this movie so much more watchable. With his on-camera schtick (his interactions with the audience are hilarious) and offscreen sociopathy, he is the most vividly drawn character in the movie. He also deserves points for being the only character to have a decent comeback to Arnie's 'I'll be back' line ('Only in a re-run!').

    Shot while Predator was on hiatus, The Running Man has become oddly (some might say, horrifically) prescient. The plot summary was in jest, but it is a bit disconcerting to watch the opening scene of this movie and realise that it is set in 2017, in an America where eighties Reaganism has metamorphosed into oppressive corporatism.

    Despite its unintentional timeliness, The Running Man is nowhere near the same level as Predator. The movie went through several directors and was severally over-budget before Glaser was brought on-board to pull the whole mess to the finish line.

    The rush to get the movie finished shows, as does the lack of budget: the 'prison' that Ben Richards escapes from looks like a quarry with a few guards, the airport where Ben is captured just looks like an airport circa-1986, and the game zone sets feel cramped and small. The whole movie feels like it is stuck on sound stages, rather than actual locations.

    The most off-putting thing about the movie is tone. The movie is aiming for the same nihilistic satire as Total Recall, but it lacks Paul Verhoeven's intelligence. The movie has a mean streak that makes it hard to just sit back and enjoy it. It also has a disturbing focus on rape and sexual assault which adds to the movie's seediness. It might have been attempt to make the future-USA look as desensitised to violence as possible, but it just comes off as clunky and disturbing.

    In a recent interview, screenwriter Steven deSouza criticised the ending of the movie. Originally, the way it was scripted, Arnie and the girl were to be killed by celebrity Stalker Captain Freedom (his Predator co-star Jesse Ventura). In a twist, it would later be revealed that Killian and his minions had used CGI face replacement and body doubles to fake their deaths after our heroes had escaped the game zone.

    Apparently, execs got cold feet after the film's test screening and re-cut the movie so that this sequence was moved later so that viewers would know what the villain was doing. Without this twist, the final third of The Running Man is extremely predictable - Arnie invades the TV station, wipes out an army of goons and kills Killian.

    Ultimately, The Running Man is a pretty garbage movie - it's worth seeing for the concept and Richard Dawson's performance, but otherwise the direction is rote, the tone is extremely sleazy and the action un-inspired.

    Saturday, 17 June 2017

    IN THEATRES: Rough Night

    It's been awhile since I reviewed a comedy, and this one sounded up my alley: solid premise, good cast and the trailer made it look decent.



    Ten years after meeting, four estranged college friends, Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) reconnect for a bachelorette party. When they accidentally kill a stripper, their already strained bonds are tested further.

    A group of characters having to dispose of a body has served as the basis for several different movies: off the top of my head, The House on Sorority Row (slasher), Weekend at Bernie's (comedy), and Very Bad Things (black comedy) come to mind. Using it as the basis for an r-rated Female-driven comedy ala Bridesmaids or last year's Bad Moms feels timely. While it is never as funny as those movies, Rough Night is a pretty decent comedy.


    Watching this movie was interesting. I rarely pay attention to audiences when I watch a movie, but during this one I found myself listening out for the laughter, which synced up pretty much with my own. I laughed pretty consistently, but there were definite dips where nothing was landing.  I knew something was off because the laughter around me would die away. It sounds weird,  but I think this movie suffers from too many jokes.

    In its favour, the movie lives up to its R rating (at least in terms of the blood), and the jokes that feel like natural outgrowths of the story and characters work well (Jess's horrifically stilted campaign advert; Blair and Frankie's tetchy dynamic; Alice's constant neediness). However, the big set piece moments feel wedged in and are not as funny as they could be (that jet ski gag from the trailers comes out of nowhere and is never referenced again).

    And while the premise is good, the story never escalates in a clear (or clever) way. The key question is: How will they get rid of the body? The movie never does anything that interesting with it - it never feels like the tension is building, and it resolves in an incredibly contrived way.

    While the jokes are all over the place, the cast are pretty good, and their roles are (mostly) more interesting than the trailers would suggest.

    Jillian Bell has the biggest arc as Alice, the character who brings the group together. Right from the beginning it's clear that Alice is the one character who is stuck in the past. It's a character type who is pretty familiar from any reunion movie, and Bell is basically responsible for carrying the movie to the finish line. Her friendship with Jess is really the heart of the movie, and Bell and Johansson make for believable former besties.


    As the bride-to-be, Johansson seems a little lost - she is good, but she is effectively a straight man who gets lost behind her co-stars. Even in that role, she is effectively sharing duties with Kravitz, who, frankly, gets funnier material. She is more solid in the movie's more dramatic second half, when the movie begins to focus on the relationship between her and Bell. The biggest laugh I got from her was her campaign ad (her character is running for state senate), which is hilariously on-point as a Hillary Clinton parody. 


    As for the other members of the foursome, Kravitz and Glazer play former lovers who are clearly still stuck in their old roles. Glazer is some kind of activist; Kravitz is some kind of high-powered something-or-other (who is going through a divorce). 

    One thing I did like was that the other characters acknowledged how abnormally attractive Kravitz is, which leads to the movie's one successful comic tangent (involving Ty Burrell and Demi Moore's pansexual neighbours). Glazer gets the least to do, which is sad - hopefully this launches her into bigger and better things.

    Actually the four leads are all believable as best friends. It's one of the movie's successes that they feel like a believable group (even if the script does not really fill out their characters that much).


    The one off-note of the cast is Kate McKinnon as Jess's Australian friend Pippa. She is so broad and different from every other human in the movie - it never reads as believable or that funny. I spent too much of the movie tracking her accent, which wanders all over the place. It might get some easy laughs stateside but I found myself laughing at the things she did that did not relate to her Aussie-ness (the scene where she tries to clue the other ladies in that the 'cops' they are talking to are not cops). Juxtaposed with such a strong group dynamic, McKinnon feels out of place.

    Her character epitomises the movie's patchiness. For every comic beat that works, there are three which feel like a completely different movie, or a bad comic skit. It's a pity, because the movie does have its own ideas: in a nice change of pace, Jess's fiancĂ© Peter (the film's co-writer Paul W. Downs) is not some square-jawed hunk, but an average-looking nice guy whose idea of a good time is wine-tasting. 

    It's clearly an attempt to reverse the stereotype of the humourless bride from movies like The Hangover. He even gets his own deranged subplot in which he attempts to make an overnight trip to get to Jess's aid, with the aid of Red Bull, Russian ADD meds and a stockpile of adult diapers.

    The other element which works better than the hackneyed jokes is the relationship between Glazer and Kravitz. The movie (and characters) treat in the right way, completely matter-of fact. It isn't dwelt upon, or made the subject of lascivious gags (it helps that the movie was not directed by  man). 

    It is baffling that these elements work, and then there will be some contrived bit of business (like popping champagne in an airport) which clunks. There are even a few beats where characters comment on the jokes which have just happened. It's a lazy trope, and it happens enough times to get annoying.

    Overall, Rough Night is a decent comedy, but not great. It's got a good cast and some solid comic ideas, but the movie is brought down by too many contrived beats which don't work. It's a pity, because we only get a few female-led comedies a year, and unless I'm overlooking something, this is the only game in town for the next few months.

    Catch it when it comes out on home media.

    Monday, 12 June 2017

    Whitney Houston (1985)

    After reviewing Whitney: Can I Be Me last month, I was curious to check out the late singer's music, especially her debut. Growing up in the nineties, you could not help hearing her big hits, but in listening to Whitney Houston as an album by itself it felt new and exciting. Even if half the track list were familiar songs, taken as a whole Houston's debut



    The most interesting thing about this record is how unlike it sounds like her later records. By that I mean, apart from 'The Greatest Love of All', there are no hurricane-sized ballads.

    'You Give Good Love' is a sweet ballad that remains one of Houston's best. While there are moments where she goes for the rafters, they feel like natural peaks, rather than an artist trademark. While it is incredibly polished, on this album Houston's sound is still embryonic. On this song, and the rest of the album, Houston uses her talents to serve the songs.

    Somewhat unheralded nowadays, 'Thinking About You' is a terrific dance number and the funkiest thing on the album. Considering how hard Houston tacked toward pop, I was shocked to see 'You Give Good Love' and this track were produced by Kashif (who performs double duties as Houston's duet partner here). One of the great RnB producers of the eighties, he worked on most of Evelyn Champagne King's early stuff. In fact, if the production was harder, I could see 'Thinking About You' as a King song. I had never heard this song before, and it's become one of my favourites.

    Opening like a new wave track from the early eighties, 'Someone For Me' is another terrific song. It skates close to sounding the most of its time, but with a strong vocal and some good guitar and percussion (I guess they were created by an 808, but there might be some real drums in there), it ends up as a real barn burner. It's just as good as 'Thinking About You'.

    After the double whammy of two dance tracks, the tempo and tone changes with 'Saving All My Love For You'. One of Houston's most well-known ballads, it is a bummer of a song if you really listen to the lyrics. Once again, Houston sells the hell out of the vocal, which (somehow) blunts the sadness of the song's underlying message.

    'Nobody Loves Me Like You Do' is a duet with Jermaine Jackson. There is a weird echo to the production and the rather twangy guitar  gives the song the feel of a country song. Once Houston and Jackson start singing the chorus, it feels like something Kenny Rogers would sing. Based on Clive Davis' edict that the album appeal to the broadest (white) audience, this song's inclusion is probably just savvy calculation. Still, it's  good song, and provides a nice lead-in to...
    'How Will I Know' is one of those songs that makes me think of an aerobic class. It's one of Houston's songs that's always been in heavy rotation, but remains one of her best. The thing that always stood out for me about this song is the interplay with the backing singers. While it is obviously not gospel, the way they augment and play off Houston really gives the song that added bit of 'oomph'.

    With its tinkling synth keyboards and soaring strings, 'All At Once' boasts a great vocal from Houston (and some great backing singers), but the lyrics are sentimental claptrap. Houston is a fine interpreter of material,  but here obvious, mawkish lines like 'she took your smile away' just come off silly when delivered so sincerely. Points for the delivery, but this might be the least interesting song on the album.
    'Take Good Care Of My Heart' is another duet with Jermain Jackson. Previously released on his album Dynamite, it is a good love song with a very strong, heavy beat that gives it a real sense of momentum. The chorus brings it squarely into 'middle of the road' territory, but the duet partners work well together. Maybe not as memorable as some of the other deep cuts, but that's no slight on the song.

    Whatever impact 'Greatest Love Of All' previously had is completely lost on me. It's no fault of the song - it's just been played so many times, and parodied to death, that it's hard to sit through with wanting to drift off.

    One of Houston's earliest releases were her appearances on a couple of tracks by the great Teddy Pendergrass. One of these songs, 'Hold Me', serves as the finale here. A meeting between two eras, sonically it sounds like nothing else on the album. As well as a chance to hear two great voices together, it offers a glimpse at what Houston's voice sounded like in a more overtly 'soul' song.

    One of the biggest hits of all time, and routinely hailed as Houston's best album, her debut is a really great record. Sure, some of the production shows its age, but Houston is in great voice, the material is all up to servicing her pipes and there is less evidence of the formula that would come to dictate her later releases.

    Related reviews

    Whitney: Can I Be Me

    Saturday, 10 June 2017

    IN THEATRES: The Mummy

    Man I've been really, really excited about this one - probably too excited, considering the trailers - but ever since the first casting announcements, this project has become the first of my 'must-sees' for 2017.


    I can sadly admit that I have seen every single Universal Mummy movie. Most of them are very bad, or just plain boring. So, unlike the other Universal Monsters, I don't have a problem with having another go at the Mummy -- it's the kind of interesting concept that deserves a re-do (look, the 1999 Mummy is a lot of fun, but I don't think anyone is going to claim it as an all-time classic). I'm still not sold on the whole shared universe thing (remember the days when people used to focus on making one good movie?), but it seemed if Tom Cruise was into it, the material must be at least decent -- and Sofia Boutella is a badass, so I knew this at least had a shot at being fun.

    A few things gave me pause going in: One, as already stated, this shared Universal Monsters franchise sounds like a mess waiting to happen. And Two, the helmer behind this Mummy is Alex Kurtzman, who has only one previous directorial credit (the okay drama People Like Us) and his work as screenwriter is pretty mixed (a few too many Transformers movies. And the last Spider-Man movie. And Star Trek 2-Wrath of Plot Holes). Still, it's not like they had Skip Woods and Brett Ratner double-teaming this one. Maybe shorn of Roberto Orci, and with different collaborators, he could rise to the challenge of making a great, fun monster movie with Tom Cruise and Gazelle from Kingsman. Because that still sounds cool.

    Enough rambling. On with the review!


    Cruise plays Nick Morton, a soldier/part-time black market scavenger, who has a nice sideline in swiping ancient artefacts and selling them off. Currently on tour in Iraq, he goes AWOL when he hears there might be some treasure under a town in hostile territory. Instead of treasure, Nick discovers the tomb of Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Buried alive after she tried to murder her way to the throne she had been denied, she is now free to enact her revenge. If this wasn't bad enough, she really needs Nick's help to get her plans underway. Zoinks!

    When The Mummy aims for comedy, it is a joy. When it aims for anything else, it is Gene Wilder's character from Blazing Saddles: all over the place.

    The main problem is the underlying theme of the movie, which is to give Universal a piece of the 'shared universe' pie that every other major studio is craving. The problem with this approach is that it means the this movie has no reason to exist dramatically. Every character and every scene is designed to shove this movie toward a bunch of sequels and spinoffs, rather than a narrative conclusion that will (hypothetically) make people want to see this movie on its own terms.

    Call me old-fashioned, but it's a quality I miss.

    What is sad is that the movie had six writers, including Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married), David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and Cruise's Mission: Impossible collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (who also wrote a little movie called The Usual Suspects). Throughout the movie you can see the struggle going on between the corporate and creative sides, as the story and the characters struggle to maintain any kind of internal coherence.

    It would help if the direction was more inspired. The movie aims for scares and tension, but director Alex Kurtzman has no feel for the scenario's pulpier elements, failing to give any of the movie's signature moments a sense of real impact. As a blockbuster, this one of the most generic in recent memory, from its colour palette to its use of CG.

    And despite the big budget, the movie feels weirdly small and compartmentalised. The sets are never shot with a sense of scale, and always feel like sets. Aside from the opening scenes in Iraq, the movie is basically stuck indoors. It never feels like there is a world outside of what we can see.


    Speaking of tunnel vision, the 'Dark Universe' set-up which is supposed to get us to movies about Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon is dull and pointless - it would help if it was fun, but it just comes off as rote and poorly developed. It also takes up the majority of the movie's second act, sucking attention away from the main story.

    This movie has some of the worst exposition dumps I've seen in recent years. The movie opens with a flashback to set up the Mummy, which is fine. But then thirty minutes later Annabelle Wallis repeats the same story, complete with cutaways to this scene which we've already seen. And that's not the only exposition dump - there's like ten scattered throughout the movie.

    Russell Crowe has fun as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but he could be cut out and you would not miss him. When Hyde appears it looks like the movie might actually go somewhere interesting: Unlike his good half, Hyde wants to become the Mummy's partner, and help her destroy the world, just for the hell of it. It's a great idea, but Hyde is quickly subdued and you never hear anything else about it. As I said, pointless.


    Speaking of pointless, the writers never figure out who Annabelle Wallis's character is supposed to be: she swings from smart career woman to damsel in distress to comic sidekick with no space in between. Needless to say, she makes no impression in any of these roles.



    Cruise is something of a misfire here, and most of the problem is miscasting. Nick Morton is a idiot, an opportunist who is in for a quick buck but can't think two steps ahead. Cruise is pretty funny in the role, but Nick's weakness never feels completely real, because he's played by Tom Cruise. His innate steadfastness can't help but come through. 

    This is especially true of the movie's romantic subplot, which feels like it's been half-edited out of the movie. It literally feels like there are scenes missing which could Cruise and Wallis sync as a couple. Cruise rarely has had believable chemistry as a romantic lead, and when the movie's third act is dependant on that chemistry to drive the final act, that is a major problem. The fact that Cruise is far too old to play young any more just compounds the problem - having these two actors together recalls   the romantic black hole of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Funny Face.


    As the Mummy, Boutella is fine, but underused. She is a good actress and a physical marvel, but she is never given room to move. While the production design is pretty bland overall, her makeup is terrific. When it comes to visualising the Mummy, the movie actually does something right.


    It's not all bad. While the movie is pretty dull, every time it stops trying to tick every box in the 'Build your own shared universe' checklist, it is pretty fun. Jake Johnson plays Cruise's army buddy Chris, who always winds up getting the blowback when Nick's schemes go wrong. He is possessed by the Mummy and winds up destroyed, but returns throughout the movie as a ghost to tell Nick what's going on. 

    Whenever Ghost Chris turns up, the movie starts to feel more like An American Werewolf in London or Big Trouble in Little China. The film's best scene is an argument between Nick and Ghost Chris in a pub bathroom. It's so weird and funny, it really draws attention to how formulaic the rest of the movie is.

    I said at the top of this review that the movie is at its best when it goes for comedy, and that's the ingredient that prevents me from completely dismissing it. While the second act/shared universe trash dump is a dead zone, the beginning and ending are peppered with genuinely funny scenes. Nick's interactions with Ghost Chris are great, but his early interactions with the Mummy are also good (basically they all involve him trying to fight or flee her). 

    This is where Kurtzman's talents as a filmmaker come through. He shoots and times these beats expertly, which makes his lacklustre contributions elsewhere all the more disappointing. If the movie had leaned toward something more offbeat and original, they might have ended up with something as good as Big Trouble in Little China or even Cruise's own Edge of Tomorrow. Ultimately, this movie needed to be more brave.

    Wait for it to turn up on Netflix.

    Friday, 9 June 2017

    CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: Deidra & Laney Rob a Train

    Released in March of this year, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is part of Netflix's new plan to take on the majors by distributing their own movies.


    Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) is the valedictorian of her high school and looking forward to moving away from her hometown. While her mother (Danielle Nicolet) works and her father Chet (David Sullivan) works hard to be out of the picture, Deidra looks after her sister Lane (Rachel Crow) and younger brother Jet (Lance Grey).

    The kids' lives get a whole lot harder when Mom goes to jail. With bills (and Mom's bail) to pay and Child Protective Services breathing down her neck, Deidra has few options left. With Laney's help, she starts robbing the long-haul trains which crank past their house every night.

    Written by Shelby Farrell and directed by Sydney Freeland, this movie is a lot of fun.

    The cast are uniformly terrific: As the titular characters, Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow are awesome. They have great chemistry, and really feel like siblings.


    Murray, who you may recognise as Josie from Riverdale, is great as Deidra - the character is a real get: super-smart and wise beyond her years, she has clearly had to grow up fast to pick up some of the slack from her hard-working mom, and Murray manages to make her transition from honours student to criminal believable. The scene where she confronts her mother in prison is heart-breaking.


    As younger sister Laney, Crow is wonderfully unassuming. What makes their relationship so great is how Crow and Murray complement each other - where one sister is strong, the other is weak, and vice-versa.

    Their nemesis is Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou?), a disgraced railway investigator who sees his latest assignment as a chance at redemption. Though the movie is based around teens, his character feels like he stepped out of a darker movie. I give the filmmakers credit - he does not feel out of place. While he is an asshole who takes his job far too seriously, his motivations make sense.

    Sasheer Zamata (Saturday Night Live) plays their school's disillusioned careers advisor. Rather than lean into the character's misery, Zamata plays off it. This woman is mentally checked out and ready to move on - she's just waiting out the clock. She ends up helping the girls when Deidra bribes her with a way out of her job.

    While the conceit could have been played in a quirkier, more surreal style, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train feels very grounded. It's rooted in the characters and their relationships. It's the humanity of the ensemble that really pulls the movie together. These characters feel like normal people with strengths, flaws and insecurities.

    I have been bingeing the podcast Black Men Can't Jump in Hollwood for the last few months. It reviews movies on the basis of their racial representation, and the overriding theme of the show is a desire for roles that portrayed people of colour as human beings. Without even trying, I feel like this movie manages to do that.

    It's a really fine flick. It's so good, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train almost makes up for all of those Adam Sandler movies Netflix has been churning out. It's hyperbole, but I am really looking forward to what these people do next.

    Thursday, 1 June 2017

    IN THEATRES: Wonder Woman

    It's been 75 years in the making, but feminist/psychologist/S&M enthusiast William Moulton Marston's creation has finally made the leap to the big screen in her own adventure.


    Ya'll know the gist. Sexy man Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on an island populated by Amazon warriors. The youngest of them, Diana, decides to return with him to Man's world to defeat Ares and end all wars.

    Wonder Woman was the first of the new DC movies I've had any interest in seeing, and I was still worried it was going to be crap. On the one hand, the creative team are solid. Patty Jenkins is no Zack Snyder and the writers had solid pedigrees. Plus it has walking charm factory Chris Pine in it. And there's no denying the novelty of this being the character's first big screen movie. On the other hand, Gal Gadot has not yet proven her acting abilities, Jenkins hasn't made a feature since 2003 and the production woes of previous DC movies made me suspicious that we were being sold a bill of goods.

    Well... the movie's good. Really good. I'll have to let it sit for awhile to see how if it sticks, but it's a heck of a lot better than the rest of the movies in this new DC stable.

    Thanks to its period setting, the movie insulated from all the previous movies, and Patty Jenkins directs the movie with a completely different style and intent than Zack Snyder and David Ayer. You don't see many action movies where the emphasis is on the effects of the gunfire and explosions. While Wonder Woman is often referenced as being extremely empathetic and moral, Jenkins actually makes that empathy a part of her directorial perspective. Even when the movie is not from Diana's point of view, her sensitivity to human cruelty and weakness is filtered throughout the movie. Unlike Zack Snyder's sterile, pornographic focus on CG destruction, this is a diegesis where pain and death are acknowledged, and don't get pushed aside. Instead, they really are the focus.

    First, lets talk  influences. There are two big ones: Superman: The Movie and the first Captain America. The narrative structure vaguely resembles the former - we start on Diana as a child, growing up in Themyscira and learning how to become a warrior. There is also a scene in an alley which echoes Clark Kent and Lois Lane's confrontation with the mugger. If you want to stretch, the film's focus on Diana recognising what her purpose is, is roughly equivalent to Superman's arc in the 1978 movie. 

    Because of its period setting, Wonder Woman can't help but remind one of Captain America: The First Avenger. You have a world war, you have an earnest hero, you have German villains and schemes to perpetuate the war with super weapons. You even have a motley crew of soldiers who assist our heroes in foiling the bad guys' scheme; and a final sequence predicated on a major character sacrificing himself by destroying a plane carrying a super weapon.

    However, as a movie, Wonder Woman is better constructed, and does not warp its story to fit into a broader narrative (the sequence which derails The First Avenger). While the top and tail narrator segments tie in to Batman versus Superman, the movie is not directly referenced, and there are no cameos from the other movies to call back (or forward) to other movies. It feels like a story with a beginning, middle and end.


    One of the biggest surprises is Gadot in the title role. I found her incredibly wooden in the Fast and Furious movies, but here she is far more vibrant and well-rounded than I expected. Over-earnest but not stupid, knowledgable but with no real world experience, Gadot is really good as Diana. She is far more engaging than either of her BvS co-stars, and has the benefit of a solid script and strong direction that (I'm betting) minimised her weaknesses to make sure that her performance was up to par. Her supporting cast help share the load, but as the centre of this story, Gadot is terrific. I don't think she is as instantly winning as Chris Evan's Steve Rogers or Chris Reeve's Clark Kent, but she is really strong. More power to her.


    If the movie has an MVP, it is Chris Pine - if he was not in the movie, I don't know if it would work as well. The movie is as much Steve Trevor's development as it is Diana's. Unlike her, he is a spy, someone who is willing to compromise and do what needs to be done to accomplish goals which might not even be that good. Over the course of the movie, as Diana learns about Man's world, Steve begins to view the world through her eyes, and he slowly rediscovers his own sense of right and wrong.

    This kind of character arc is a strategy that DC movies should use more often. Unlike Marvel, DC's heroes are less human and more aspirational - they are mythic figures, more like gods than human beings. Outside of their origin stories, having an arc does not make sense for these characters. What Wonder Woman does is give an emotional arc to a human character who is affected by the hero/ine. Their relationship is the heart of the movie, and their shared evolution is what makes this movie as strong as it is, despite some flaws.

    The most obvious is pretty cosmetic. While the action scenes work (and don't go on too long), I'm not a fan of speed-ramping. There's not too much of it, but it adds nothing to the viewing experience.

    The main thing the movie is missing is an iconic musical score. I'm meh on the theme they introduced for her in BvS - it works fine as a stinger, but it's not strong enough to hang a movie on There is not enough of a melody to it, and it only works as a (brief) action cue. This score needed something more empathetic and, uh, heroic, ala John  Williams' Superman  theme or Alan Silvestri's underrated Captain America March. It just lacks soul.

    I'm not even sure if this is a criticism (because I'm still debating it) is the villain. Taken purely as an antagonist, Ares is somewhat flawed. He is introduced extremely late, which means the conflict feels a little under-powered. The main problem is that there is no 'fall in hate' moment - you need a moment, either early or in Act Two, where the hero and villain meet. The movie is based on a concept rather than an antagonist and that is hard to pull off in a movie that requires violent resolution.

    In the movie's favour, you could argue that Ares is ultimately is less important than Diana's realisation that the world is not based on an easy binary of 'good' and 'evil'. She has to recognise that ultimately he is not the source of humanity's destructive impulses, merely an agitator of them. In this respect - juxtaposing Diana's naive worldview against grim reality - her arc works far better than the stunted revisionism of the previous DC movies. Here, the movie's emphasis on collateral damage, and the movie's message, is the inverse of the previous Snyder-led movies.

    While those movies seemed obsessed with destruction and the negative effects of having such powerful figures in the world, they did not have a strong central focus on their main characters: Superman remains a total blank, and we've had two movies with him already. Wonder Woman is rooted in its central character, her growth, and (most importantly) how that growth is catalysed. During the action sequences, the emphasis is not on visceral impact or making cool shots, it's on Diana's reactions to the violence and pain around her. The Western Front is the perfect setting for her arc, foregrounding human cruelty at its most mechanised and wide-scale.

    While the literary Wonder Woman's first war was WW2, setting the movie during the Great War makes thematic sense, by testing her idealism and clearly drawn sense of morality against one of the most immoral repugnant periods in human history.

    Those things aside, Wonder Woman is a really good movie that manages to heft some surprisingly meaty thematic content with action, humour and a welcome dollop of humanity. I couldn't give a toss about what this means for future comic book movies. This is a good movie that stands on its own, and incidentally gives one of pop culture's most iconic characters a solid cinematic showcase. 

    Saturday, 27 May 2017

    DOUBLE WHAMMY: War On Everyone & American Honey

    The Midnight Ramble takes a look back at two flicks that would and should have been reviewed last year, War On Everyone and American Honey. 

    War On Everyone
    Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, this was super high on my list of 'must-see' movies last year. His previous movie, The Guard, was my favourite from that year, and the trailers made this movie feel like an American cousin to that flick.

      Two corrupt cops (Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena) spend their days blackmailing criminals. When they sniff out a bigger fish, the tables are turned...

      I am sad to report that this movie was kind of disappointing. There is a hip archness to the whole flick which I could never click into. I've been struggling to get my figure on what my problem with this movie is, and this is the best I can come up with: it feels like I have seen it before. 

      This movie feels like a Tarantino ripoff from the mid-nineties: too-cool characters operating outside the law, pontificating on pop culture and philosophy while they engage in drugs/robbery/hesits/porn etc. All the parts are there, but they don't end up amounting to anything. It feels like empty pastiche with no purpose. Compounding this staleness, this movie committed a serious screen-writing sin, in that every character seemed to be speaking with the same voice. Coming from a writer like McDonagh, it's really disappointing. 

      For the first forty minutes I was struggling to get invested. Once the plot clicked into view, the movie started to gel. But it was clear I was not going to love these characters like I did Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.

      Pena is good in his role, but there was nothing sympathetic or just interesting about him. Meanwhile Skarsgard's character is dealing with some kind of unspoken trauma. This would be fine, but it requires a strong actor whose mere presence can fill out these gaps. Skarsgard is fine, but he does not have that kind of charisma. The pair's dynamic never relaly comes into focus -- Skarsgard is a bit dumber, and haunted. But that's about it. There's no real spark between them that makes you want to watch them.

      Despite these criticisms the movie is not a total loss. A bad John Michael McDonagh is still better than most stuff out there. Stephanie Sigman (Miss Bella) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) are good as our antiheroes' significant others, but they are really just side characters. Theo James is also okay as the bad guy, James Mangin. The problem is that they are all hampered by the same vacuous-ness that runs through the whole movie. The one interesting character is Caleb Landry Jones as Mangin's weedy little henchman, but even then, he doesn't hold candle to the minor characters of McDonagh's earlier films.

      The one stylistic choice that really clicked with me was the use of Glen Campbell's music. Every scene with a Campbell song suddenly brings this movie into focus. Skarsgard's character is defined by his love for Campbell's music, which gives the character his one sliver of pathos. My favourite sequence involves Skarsgard and Thompson dancing to Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy' through his house. It's the one scene where the movie drops trying to be clever and just has fun.

      Overall, War on Everyone is not as funny or as clever as it thinks it is. 


      American Honey
      Written and directed by Fish Tank's Andrea Arnold, American Honey stars newcomer Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in a free-wheeling story about a group of young'uns road-tripping across middle America.

      Unlike War on Everyone, this movie was not on my radar until late last year. I was a fan of Fish Tank, and this looked to be built on similar parts: an unknown lead, and a story about young people at the fringes of society. 


        Lane plays Star, a teen who is plucked off the street by a van full of kids led by Krystal (Riley Keogh) and Jake (LaBeouf). This 'crew' go from city to city selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. While learning the ropes, Star falls for Jake, whose daredevil antics and jealous rage become her introduction to adult relationships.

        After the wobble of her Wuthering Heights adaptation, Andrea Arnold returns to a story about contemporary youth, in the mould of her excellent Fish Tank. There is very little plot, beyond the core premise, and like that previous effort, a lot of its effect is derived from the pairing of an established thespian with a non-actor.


        As Star's lover/mentor, Shia LaBeouf is fantastic. Simultaneously balancing adult urges and powered by childlike impulses, Jake is the role LaBeouf was born to play. A few years away from his various offscreen antics, LaBeouf is back in the business of being a character actor, and American Honey hopefully inaugurates the beginning of LaBeouf being taken seriously.

        The heart and soul of the movie is Sasha Lane. Like her character, Lane was literally picked off the street by Arnold, who spotted her on a beach during Spring Break. Lane is so natural and unaffected, it is hard to look away. She has a unique charisma that makes her the centre of every scene. Even when other characters (like LaBeouf) take centre-stage, I found my gaze going to Lane, to register her reactions to whatever is going on. She is really fantastic. 

        This movie is over two and a half hours long, and yet you never feel it.While there is no real plot, the movie is always moving and spinning in different directions every few minutes. There is a tension and an unpredictability to the story which make sit completely riveting. Arnold's approach has been the downfall of so many indie helmers, but the difference is that Arnold keeps a tight rein on the movie's most propulsive elements: its characters. 

        American Honey has not really received much hype down here, so if you haven't seen it yet, check it out. It's worth the time.

        Wednesday, 24 May 2017

        Whitney: Can I Be Me

        The latest documentary from Nick Broomfield (and co-director Rudi Dolezal), Whitney: Can I Be Me is a warts-and-all retelling of megastar Whitney Houston's life and tragic death.


        Whitney Huston was one of the first singers I knew by name. One of my first musical memories is hearing the soundtrack to The Bodyguard blaring from the radio. Other than that, I went into this movie knowing almost nothing about Houston beyond the key bullet points. A few people in the audience seemed to know more of the stories in the documentary, so I'm assuming a lot of this material is not new.

        I found it all fascinating. Houston is one of those singers who always felt a little too big and remote for me to latch onto (kind of like Beyonce now), but the way this documentary works is like a sledgehammer, shattering Houston's porcelain image to reveal the fragile humanity behind the hit records and big voice.

        The film's thesis is simple: the ingredients for Huston's rise and fall were there from the beginning, and her image as a pristine pop singer only exuberated the cracks which were already there. Pre-fame, Houston was just an ordinary kid growing up in New Jersey. While Bobby Brown is treated as her personal Satan, tempting her toward her doom, Houston was familiar with drugs from a young age. With fame and success, her dalliance became a full-blown addiction, compounded by her marriage to self-styled bad boy Bobby Brown. It then fell to her retinue of family and friends, all on the payroll, to get her out of trouble. Too intoxicated with keeping their personal gravy train running, they did nothing, and Huston's demise was inevitable.

        This movie had me thinking a lot about the Kuleshov effect (Google it). Watching footage of Houston while various voices from her past attempt to illuminate her personality feels simultaneously immersive and distancing. It makes you consider just what is really going on when the exhausted singer is staring at a mirror after a show, or when Bobby Brown wraps his arm around her friend Robyn Crawford's neck and poses for the camera. The effect is as baffling as it is revelatory.


        Forced to construct his subject from the outside looking in, and without the input of her family (outside of existing archive footage), the portrait Broomfield and Dolezal develops of a poor girl with low self-esteem, a driven, religious mother and a conflicted sexuality. The most fascinating conflict is the one within Huston herself -- between the girl she was, and the bland, all American persona she embraced, and then felt she had to reject. It's a conflict that bubbles throughout the film.

        In the years preceding her death, Houston had gone from pop royalty to a pop culture punchline, her histrionics as a performer ridiculed and her personal life treated as another celebrity train-wreck. Combined with testimony from friends and workmates (including a stylist and a former bodyguard), Houston emerges as a flawed but extremely sympathetic figure. Rather than an arrogant buffoon, she comes off as a trapped,  immature woman who was unable to pull herself free of the influences that were bringing her down. She is a woman under siege, and every time it feels like she will break free, something will happen, self-created or otherwise, to scupper her escape.


        The biggest revelation of the documentary is the figure of Robyn Crawford, Houston's best friend since childhood and -- since she did not participate in the documentary -- rumoured lover. If there is an unsung hero(ine) in this story it is Crawford. The first person to raise the alarm about Houston's spiralling addictions in the eighties, Crawford was shunned and ignored by Houston's family, who were already suspicious of their bond. When Bobby Brown enters the picture, Robyn becomes her guardian angel (at one point, the former bodyguard recalls Crawford beating Brown up). In the end, Bobby won and Crawford disappeared, leaving Houston with no real close friends.

        Always portrayed as the villain who brought her down, Brown emerges as a gormless idiot, and a mutual partner in Houston's downfall. Seemingly unable to comprehend his wife's troubles, he seems more concerned with feeding his ego than helping his spouse. Brought together by similar backgrounds, they shared each others' addictions, fed and attacked each other's egos, and sent Huston on a downward spiral she could not get out of.

        It's not all depressing. Broomfield and Dolezal utilise home movies and previously unseen footage from an aborted documentary of her 1999 tour to show the Houston behind the perfect veneer: joking with her friends; playing around in her hotel room; going on holidays with her daughter. In one unintentionally meta-textual scene she and Bobby re-enact one of the confrontation scenes from the Ike-Tina Turner movie What's Love Got To Do With It. Midway through, Huston takes over and begins to re-write the scene, shifting the power from Bobby/Ike to Tina/herself, so that both women can win. It's moments like this where Broomfield and Dolezal's movie is at its strongest, letting his star take the reins and run the show. While the interweaving of eyewitnesses and montage work well, it is on-the-fly vignettes like this which feel the most insightful into Huston's personality.

        For a movie about someone I knew almost nothing about, this movie is a sucker punch. The finale is a combination of footage and stills, accompanied by a live recording of Houston singing. As the credits begin, the music cuts out, leaving only images of Houston in life smiling straight at the viewer. It's an unsettling effect, and at this point it felt like the full weight of Houston's life hit me all at once.


        Like his subject, Broomfield and Dolezal's film is obsessed with finding the real Whitney. And it gets damn close. I would have liked more input from Crawford and Houston's mother Cissy (present via some rather chilly segments from her interview with Oprah after Huston's death); and I would have also like more information about Huston's activities post-divorce (the movie cuts from that moment to her death in 2012), such as the release of her comeback album in 2009 or her long-in-development movie project, the remake of the 1976 musical Sparkle, which was released a few months after her death.

        Ultimately, Can I Be Me is an extremely empathetic look at a woman who never had a chance to be herself. Highly recommended.

        After reviewing Can I Be Me, I went back and listened to Houston's first album. You can find the review here.

        Friday, 19 May 2017

        IN THEATRES: John Wick, Chapter 2

        It has been a few months since its release everywhere else, but John Wick 2 is finally here! YAY! 


        The first John Wick re-acquainted me with my love of watching bad people getting shot in the face. Cool, clean and simple, it felt like a glimpse into what a seventies action movie would look like if the eighties had never happened. There is an economy and intelligence to the way those movies (generally directed by Don Segiel  and Walter Hill) were made that we don't see enough of any more (it's the same reason I loved Mad Max: Fury Road and Dredd).

        After the events of the first film, John Wick is trying to rebuild his life when he is paid a visit by Italian crime boss Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Wick owes him a favour after D'Antonio helped him get out of the game the first time around. With the 'boogeyman' back in the game, D'Antonio is here to collect. Soon, Wick is back on the run with a massive bounty on his head...

        Keanu Reeves has made a few great action movies which got sequels. This is far and away the best one. 

        Like Raid 2, this is bigger in scope, and like that movie, it loses a bit of the intensity. But this is no Matrix Reloaded. The movie makes up for this with inventive set pieces, eye popping art direction and plenty of pitch black humour.


        With his sunken eyes and hangdog face, Reeves is starting to look his age, and that world-weariness works for the role: John Wick is the modern successor to the taciturn gunmen Lee Marvin, Chuck Bronson and Steve McQueen used to play in the sixties and seventies. Like those actors, Reeves is more of a presence than an actor. His range is extremely limited, and his off-kilter delivery has sunk him more times than not. But in a role like Wick, or Neo or Ted, his stiffness gives him an otherworldly quality that works for those roles.


        The same goes for Common, playing Wick's rival Cassian. Like Reeves, he is not the best actor in the world, but the minimalist aesthetic of the Wick-verse fits him perfectly. Though it is hard to tell, it looks like he does most of his own action. He moves well, and with no wasted motion.

        Playing another killer on Wick's tail, Ruby Rose's scenes feel like clips from Young Rosa Klebb Chronicles. Good female characters are hard to come by in action movies -- they are either victims or sexpots (or both). Apart from one weird butt shot, her character is constructed in the same economical fashion as the other assassins. Her character is mute, which actually adds to the role. I cannot see her Australian accent passing muster in this world.

        The supporting cast from the original return. As the Continental staff, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick continue to be terrifically deadpan. The rest of the supporting players are a bunch of familiar genre faces: David Patrick Kelly, of The Warriors and Commando, pops up briefly, Laurence Fishburne chews every piece of scenery as a homeless gang boss and, in the biggest surprise of all, Italian cinematic icon Franco Nero appears as the manager of Continental's Italian subsidiary.

        Now to the action: it's great. With the bigger budget, the action has expanded, but it built on the same fundamentals: actors doing the action; shoot in wides; only cut when absolutely necessary.

        We start with a great car chase (complete with a wonderfully deadpan appearance from Peter Stormare) through the streets of the Big Apple, before moving to an outdoor rave, a train, an art museum and, as the finale, a bravura sequence in a hall of mirrors.

        The colour palette is vivid and splashy like a comic book, and the set design is wonderfully lush. There is a bathroom in this movie that is one of the most beautifully shot rooms I've seen in a long time. It's a gorgeous-looking movie.

        It is also extremely funny. Unlike so many action movies of recent times, this one bothers to have a sense of humour. It knows that it is ridiculous, but has the sense to play everything straight. The high-point in this respect are the two extended running fights between Wick and Cassian that take up the movie's second act. They are filled with wonderful beats: the endless fall down a flight of stairs; the silent gun battle through a busy train station; their final showdown inside the train, which climaxes with the frozen passengers fleeing as soon as the train stops. The movie's sense of timing and tone is perfect.

        As I mentioned at the outset, the movie is not flawless.

        One quibble that grew on me was that is that there is no real physical threat to our anti-hero. While he sustains some damage, Wick is so superhuman that the fights begin to feel repetitive. While they are initially presented as such, neither Common nor Ruby Rose are compatible as physical antagonists. Common initially appears to be Wick's equal, but he is dispatched fairly quickly. that leaves Ruby Rose, whose final showdown is extremely brief. At first I thought her size and looks were a misdirect. I was expecting her to be a real threat, like Mad Dog from The Raid or that little guy from The Simpsons.

        Frankly, it would have made more sense to just amalgamate Common and Ruby Rose's roles into one character. You could cut Common from the movie and the movie's narrative trajectory would not be greatly affected. The movie's main villain is totally functional (and rather reprehensible), but he's not that memorable.

        These are pretty small nitpicks, but I hope we get some memorable baddies in John Wick 3 that can put Reeves through his paces.

        Overall, John Wick Chapter 2 is exactly what you want it to be. It has got great action, it is beautifully shot and covers everything in a thick (but unobtrusive) layer of irony. The dog is also adorable. It's hard to beat a beagle, but I really liked Dog Mark II - he's basically the dog version of his owner. He doesn't make noise, he doesn't wander off or get up to 'cute' hi-jinx. 

        If it wasn't already obvious, go see this movie.