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 finger 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 really 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 a 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 is boatloads of fun, filled 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 the Continental's Italian subsidiary.

      Now to the action: it's great. With the bigger budget, the action has expanded, but it is built on the same fundamentals: actors doing the action; shoot in wides; and 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, so the movie ends up feeling a little toothless in the villains department.

      These are pretty small nitpicks, but I hope we get some memorable baddies in John Wick 3 who can really 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.

      Thursday, 18 May 2017

      CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: Chewing Gum & Lovesick

      I find it hard to get into TV shows now. There are so many shows now, and they have such long runs I find it hard to jump on-board. Here are two examples of recent shows that combine being extremely good, and extremely succinct.

      Chewing Gum (2016 - present)
      I caught this show a couple of weeks ago -- it's got two seasons, six episodes each, and it featured a few players I had caught on other shows. It's great.

      Created by and starring Michaela Coel, Chewing Gum chronicles the adventures of Tracey Gordon (Coel), a 24-year-old virgin who is really keen to get some.

      It is rare to see a show based around a sexually frustrated woman. Usually these kinds of shows are based around young men. This premise could make for a pretty simple show, but Chewing Gum is more nuanced than that. The show is basically about sexual desire, and the different expectations people have about fulfilling their own individual desires.

      Tracey's best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie) is involved in a long-term relationship, but expresses dissatisfaction with her boyfriend. Her subplot is based on sexual dissatisfaction, and her willingness to explain what she wants and needs from her boyfriend is refreshing. Sexual frustration is not usually a popular subject, and Candice's desire to experiment and try new things is a rare case of a female character being given agency over how she wishes to express her sexuality.

      The show deals with race and class but they are woven into the fabric of the show. The primary concerns of the humour is the intersection of these ideas with notions of religion, female agency and sexuality. However, that does not mean these themes are completely ignored -- when it does deal with race, it makes for some of the show's strongest material. One episode involves Tracey's entanglement with a racist white man who is obsessed with the 'exoticism' of blackness. Fetishizing race is rarely pushed to the forefront in dramas, let alone comedies, and this vignette is awesome.

      This might sound like heavy material, but the joy of Chewing Gum is how Coel manages to handle these themes with the lightest possible touch. Each episode runs 20 minutes, but Coel manages to pack a lot into these brief runtimes. You would think this would be reductive, but Coel is so deft with how she explores major themes. She will focus on an extremely small but significant aspect of a particular issue, nail it, and get out. The way she deals with the issue of colourism in the relationship between Tracey and Candice is so well-done. Coel recognises that these themes are worth exploring, but in a way that works within the world she has created. To boil it down without spoilers, she is not willing to distort the dynamics of her characters' relationship to address an idea. The ideas are always natural outgrowths of the story, not the other way around.

      A series of tight little haikus on the inherent weirdness of relationships and sex, Chewing Gum is one of the best comedies I've seen in recent years.

      Lovesick (2014 - present)
      Lovesick is a UK sitcom originally broadcast in 2014, and then picked up by Netflix. Originally this show was called Scrotal Recall, a title which encapsulates the premise while completely short-selling the show's warmth, intelligence and humour.

      It's not as flat-out funny as Chewing Gum, but Lovesick is great in its own right. An example of strong storytelling and an ensemble of well-rounded characters, Lovesick is a gem.

      The show is based around Dylan (Johnny Flynn), a man in his late twenties who learns that he has contracted chlamydia. Now tasked with contacting anyone he has ever been intimate with, each episode takes us back through time to an important point in Dylan's past. As Dylan's quest progresses, he begins to come to terms with his inability to form lasting connections.

      Despite the show jumping back and forth in time, the story unfolds in a fairly linear fashion. Over the course of six episodes, the writers gradually piece together these characters -- where they have come from and where they are now.

      While the actors are great, and have really strong, believable chemistry, the male characters definitely feel like they are built out of recognizable types: Dylan is the wet blanket romantic lead, while his debauched mate Luke (Daniel Ings) is your typical womaniser. The secret weapon is Evie, played by Misfits's Antonia Thomas.

      Evie is a great character, and a great showcase for Thomas. She was always good in Misfits, but there were times it felt like she was written as the object of Simon's affections rather than a character in her own right. Evie is different -- she is smart, complex and as given to making silly choices as her mates. To her credit, she is (far) faster on the uptake than her friends.

      Resurrected and re-titled by Netflix, Lovesick's second season is where the show really begins to grow out of its premise into something far more real, as the writers delve more into our central characters. The best example is Episode Two, which flashes back six-and-a-half years to the day Dylan and Evie first met. This is where we are introduced to an alien character: good Luke. After his girlfriend of three years dumps him at a party, Luke crashes and burns into the douchebag of the present.

      Now that we have a second season, the story does feel more fully formed. The season ends with a reversal of the previous season finale -- Dylan is attempting to make good on a long-term commitment while Evie has broken off her engagement. If I had caught this on its original release, I don't know if it would have stayed with me -- Season 2 adds so much that the story really feels complete.

      While it is funny, Lovesick is pretty low key for a comedy. As an examination of growing out of your twenties, it's great. Season Three cannot come soon enough.

      Tuesday, 16 May 2017

      RAMBLING RANT: James Horner's COMMANDO score is good for your health

      Commando was one of the great guilty pleasures of the eighties. A combination of wooden/hammy acting, a brilliantly moronic script and a healthy disdain for anything resembling reality, it's a great time.

      Just to catch up anyone who hasn't watched it, the plot is simple. Ah-nuld plays John Matrix, a former black ops soldier living a blissful retirement with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). When a former foe kidnaps his daughter, Matrix kills a kajillion bajillion people wearing fake moustaches and gets her back.

      Now back to the music.

      When broken into its constituent parts, Commando is a bizarre movie. And one of the funkiest parts of the movie is its score, by future Academy Award winner James Horner. I've tried to come up with a way of describing what this music sounds like, and I'm still stuck. It sounds like three different musicians trying to drown each other out in the same recording studio -- one has a bunch of synth keyboards, another has an array of steel drums and the third is just an asshole with a saxophone.

      Let's go through this masterpiece, track by track.

      Okay, now 'Prologue - Main Title' probably bares the closest resemblance to an actual song you can listen to. Heavy synths, steel drums and saxophone. It kinda works. The second half, which plays under scenes of Arnie playing with his daughter, eating ice cream and feeding a deer, also kinda works. A mawkish melody played on an extremely cheesy electronic piano, it sounds like the opening to an eighties sitcom.

      'Ambush and Kidnapping' introduces another trope of this score -- repetitive themes that go on for three minutes with little-to-no variation. Thank Christ for the sax.

      'Captured' starts slow, with a low, repetitive synth rumble. Partway through the track it explodes into a completely different synth action theme. Once again, it goes on forever, but it sounds cool. It should be noted that this music plays during Arnie's escape from the airplane taking him to South America. Let's just say that the music is way more exciting than the action onscreen.

      'Surprise' is where the score just starts aping whatever is going onscreen. In Hollywood terms this is known as 'Mickey Mousing.' In Commando terms it's known as 'Matrix running'. That joke sucks, but so does this music. Moving on! 

      'Sully Runs' is where our three musos are gate-crashed by the music for a Caribbean cruise line. Seriously.

      'Moving Jenny' sounds like something made by a human being. A mawkish, slowed-down version of the movie's main theme, it highlights the hopelessness of Jenny's plight. But not really.

      Back to the action! 'Matrix Breaks In' follows the same sophisticated pattern as 'Captured'. Slow and steady for a minute or so, and then BAM! Action theme! This one is actually pretty good at getting the juices flowing. You can definitely add it to your workout mix while you're doing your reps and getting totally jacked.

      'Infiltration, Showdown and Finale' is a 14 minute monster that plays under Arnie's final assault on the bad guys' compound. Right from the beginning, it sounds like Horner ran out of ideas and just decided to play every previous track again at the same time. The one piece that gels is the aural bliss of 0:57 through 1:17, as Horner accompanies Arnie's 'getting ready' montage with a lot of extremely satisfying 'clangs'. It is awesome -- especially if you edit it out in GarageBand -- then you can play it over and over again.
      The soundtrack to Commando is a glorious multi-vehicle car wreck. It doesn't work as well without the movie, but if you are in the mood to build your own set of Arnie-sized guns, it might do the trick.

      Monday, 15 May 2017

      BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Metro (1997)

      Released at the intersection in Eddie Murphy's career where he transitioned from adult comedy star to family friendly funny man, Metro is notable as Murphy's last stab at R-rated action comedy.

      Murphy stars as police negotiator Scott Roper. After his friend is killed, Roper gets on the tail of his killer, a psychopathic criminal called Michael Korda (Michael Wincott). However, Roper's attempts to get his man are soon complicated when Korda turns his sights on Roper's ex-girlfriend Ronnie (Carmen Ejogo)...

      Directed by Thomas Carter, Metro is a strange beast. While it has sprinkles of the old Murphy magic, the overall tone is more strait-laced action movie than action comedy. And while he has a green partner in Michael Rappaport, there is no attempt at a 'buddy cop' dynamic ala Beverly Hills Cop or even Lethal Weapon.

      Even the action sequences are not played for laughs -- the film's most OTT sequence, the tram chase, feels a beat away from some cutaway gag or a one-liner, but we get nothing. The scene is played dead serious. There's even a home invasion sequence which feels like something out of an eighties slasher movie. While it never goes too dark, the tone is noticeably more solemn than Murphy's previous vehicles in the action genre.

      Perhaps the Murphy factor is throwing me off. Maybe the movie is intended as a straight action drama. It's just that having Murphy as the star immediately evokes a set of expectations that the movie does not play to. Roper is a cop who is good at his job -- which is pretty similar to Axel Foley. But Roper lacks Foley's sense of fun. Roper is more restrained. When his friend is killed, Roper reacts with anger and dismay. When he goes after the killer, Roper never antagonises the villain or makes fun of him. 

      A case could be made that Metro is Murphy's only full-on action movie lead. His character has a few wisecracks, but overall he plays Roper completely straight. Murphy's acting choices work for the role -- Roper is a police negotiator, and knows that every choice he makes when confronting the psycho could cause more mayhem. Murphy's measured, empathetic performance is very good, and it might have gotten more attention if the movie was better.

      The movie establishes a series of threads that the movie drops -- Roper is established as an emotionally stunted gambling addict, but once the plot clicks into place, this baggage is dropped very quickly, and it never feeds into his conflict with the villain. 

      Speaking of which, Michael Wincott's Korda, with his flash-flood rages and love of mailing cops body parts, feels like a character out of a much darker movie. Wincott is very good, and his antagonism with Murphy works well, but when they are together it feels like they are in a far darker movie.

      The action sequences, while competently staged, never really pop. The one exception is the tram car chase, which builds a nice sense of peril and stakes. The finale, involving a bound Ronnie being menaced with a saw, feels like something out of Looney Tunes or The Perils of Pauline.
      Another odd note is the relationship between Roper and Ronnie. While they have an easy rapport, the age gap between Murphy and Ejogo creates a disconnect. While one can imagine them being friends,  their relationship feels so platonic, it is a bit disconcerting whenever they get more intimate. 

      Overall, what makes Metro interesting is how far it strays from what you would expect from an Eddie Murphy movie. Considering the direction Murphy's career went after its release, with The Nutty Professor and Dr Doolittle, the movie gains a weird poignancy: this is the last time we see Murphy working in the sandbox we were used to. While it has its flaws, Metro is a pretty fun flick, with a strong villain and a legitimately terrific performance from Eddie Murphy.

      Sunday, 14 May 2017

      BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Blast Of Silence (1961)

      To celebrate the release of John Wick, Chapter Two this week, here is a review of a movie about another hit man, Blast of Silence!

      We open on a black screen, with only the sound of a train chugging and whistling in the background. And then a a raspy voice intones: "Remembering, out of the black silence, you were born in pain..." A woman moans and shrieks, soon joined by the cries of an infant.

      The pinprick of light grows -- are we in a womb? A gun barrel? No! We are in a tunnel, careening toward the exit. A title card flashes onscreen: BLAST OF SILENCE.

      Thus we are introduced to the diegesis of this 1961 cheapie. Made with no-name actors on the streets of New York, Blast of Silence tells the story of a sociopathic hitman Frankie Bono (played by the film's writer-director, Allen Baron), in town to do a hit and go home. While our monosyllabic anti-hero goes about his business, the raspy narrator (blacklisted character actor Lionel Stander) offers his thoughts on the hitman's progress and his place in the world.

      I love old noir movies, especially the more obscure ones. If you go looking you can find some real gems -- Born to Kill and The Narrow Margin are personal favourites of mine. Strictly speaking, Blast of Silence is not a film noir -- it was released in 1961, long after the noir cycle had run its course. But with its spare, monochromatic style and fatalistic tone, it is the perfect example of the genre.

      The big selling points are all related to the film's style. The performances are mostly wooden: Baron is fine when silent, but loses all gravitas when he opens his mouth. The standout is Larry Tucker as Big Ralph, Bono's duplicitous contact in the city.

      The film is well-shot, with some excellent location photography of the Big Apple's seedier locales. Meyer Kuperman's score adds to the sleazy atmosphere, swinging between jazzy urban menace and histrionic strings.

      But the component which ties the whole enterprise together is Stander's extraordinary narration. Written by Waldo Salt, the narrator is never identified but appears throughout the movie to describe the protagonist's thoughts. Based on Baron's performance, it is possible that the narrator was a late addition during post-production. Whatever its origin, it is a fantastically offbeat touch which drags the movie across the line from average b-movie to true genre oddity.

      Aside from its aesthetic and genre aspects, Blast of Silence is also noteworthy as a document of New York in 1960, which offers a look at the streets and fashions of the time. And because it is the early Sixties, we get one of my favourite signs of the age: bongos!

      Re-released a decade ago as part of the Criterion collection, Blast of Silence is a strange, haunting picture that manages to overcome some rote writing and bland performances to emerge as one of the more striking and original crime flicks ever made.

      Saturday, 13 May 2017

      IN THEATRES: Alien Covenant

      Following his return to form with The Martian, Ridley Scott has reacquainted himself with the extra-terrestrials who made his name nearly forty years ago.   

      Before going further, this review is spoiler-heavy. So be forewarned.

      Ten years after the events of Prometheus, the colony ship Covenant is seven years away from its destination on a new world. After an unexpected cosmic event, the ship is damaged. During repairs, the crew pick up a mysterious signal emitting from a nearby planet. Deciding to investigate, they find a quiet, beautiful planet, filled with unseen terrors and the rogue android David (Michael Fassbender).

      For a long time, I was not sure about this one. Prometheus was a mixed-bag, and I didn't like how much we saw of the alien in the trailer (although the above poster is SWEET).

      In its favour, Alien Covenant is not Prometheus. The story is more straightforward, and scribes John Logan and Dante Harper even manage to clean up the pieces left over from the previous movie, especially David, Fassbender's ambiguous android.

      In Prometheus, David's motives were confusing. In the sequel, we open on a flashback between a newly-minted David and his creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, reprising his role from Prometheus), in which the artificial man begins to see the weaknesses in his human 'father'. 

      In the present, David has turned on humanity. Having witnessed the flaws of his creators, the android sees the destruction of the human race, along with the god-like Engineers (previously known as the space jockeys) that birthed them, as his ultimate purpose. To that end, he has bidden his time, using the space jockeys' technology to engineer his own creation, an organism whose sole purpose is to kill all living things.

      When the movie focuses on David, Alien Covenant is a joy. Both Frankenstein and Monster, his creation of the Alien is the most terrifying and well-realised aspect of the film. But when it does not, which is most of the movie, Alien Covenant is stuck in neutral.

      The story is fairly rote, and the characters, while better realised than Prometheus, are never really fleshed out. For one thing, there are too many -- most of them solely there to create a body count.

      But the biggest problem with Alien Covenant is the existence of Prometheus. For try as it might, this movie is a sequel to it and therefore is indebted to the confusing, muddled mythology that that movie created.

      David's arc, from innocent servant to corrupt overlord, is a fine one. But it requires a knowledge of the previous film which -- going off memory -- did not lay the groundwork for that arc in the first place. So David's story is a retcon, and therefore the movie has to distort and bend itself to accommodate this backstory. So while it gets parts of this story right (such as Noomi Rapace's fate), other parts still carry the inconsistency of its prequel (the origins of the Engineers remain baffling). 

      The movie is two pieces -- a sequel to Prometheus, and a generic Alien story. This hodgepodge of different story directions results in a movie that frequently loses its centre. Who is the protagonist? Katherine Waterson's traumatised but tough second-in-command? Fassbender as David? Fassbender as David's updated successor Walter? Instead of focusing on one of these characters, and building the character relationships around them, the movie feels off-base.

      The combination of the two strands also raises a logical inconsistency. The Engineers have created an airborne pathogen which infects and demolishes living organisms. Pretty insidious and (based off its use in the film) completely effective. So why does David need to create the Alien in the first place? Hubris? Maybe, but the Engineers' weapon ends up as the far more terrifying of the movie's alien antagonists.

      Years ago I read a book about the making of the Alien movies. It was fascinating to see the ideas that did not make the cut: an alien temple in the shape of a crouching man, an alien that looked like a squid; a chest-burster that resembled a skinned turkey. One of the problems with Prometheus was that it felt like Ridley Scott had taken all those old, discarded ideas and put them in a movie. Whereas Alien felt unique and spare, Prometheus felt hackneyed and old-fashioned -- trying to explain everything that was unique and frightening about the original (the space jockeys; the alien's origins).

      There is less of that gobbledegook here, but - aside from the airborne virus - the movie's new creature, the 'neomorph' comes across as a fairly bland knockoff of HR Giger's original design. It also winds up looking like a plucked turkey, but I'll give Scott the benefit of the doubt that this was not intended as a homage to the original chest-burster design.

      Sadly, Scott's interest in the new toys means he deserts the movie's real selling point. The alien, when it arrives, is a tad underwhelming. A CG creation, Scott shows it in a variety of wide shots that dispel the creature's menace. In the first two Alien movies, part of the terror came from our inability to get a good lock on what the xenomorph looked like. Here, it is all-but strolling through scenes.

      This review is starting to sound like a pan. Back to the good. Waterson's role is undercooked, but she is a solid lead. Danny McBride is also effective as the Covenant's blue-collar pilot.

      Of the human roles, Billy Crudup has the most interesting character as the crew's captain Oram. Forced into the role when the original captain is killed during the incident that cripples the ship, he is a man of faith without the stomach or instincts for leadership. His humanity and weakness make him feel like the most relatable character of the cast.

      Ultimately, while it is a far cleaner movie than the over-ambitious and inconsistent Prometheus, Alien Covenant suffers from the intertextual imperatives of its story, which prevent it from standing alone as a simple thrill ride. Check it out for the atmosphere, Fassbender's performance as David, and a deliciously bleak ending.

      Friday, 12 May 2017

      National Theatre Live: Amadeus

      First released in February of this year in the UK, the National Theatre's acclaimed production of Amadeus screened earlier today at the Academy Theatre.

      Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones) stars as Salieri, the court composer in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Devoted to becoming a famous musician in service to God, Salieri finds his good standing (and character) challenged by the arrival of young prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen). Jealous of the young man's talent, and aggrieved at his dissolute, childish nature, Salieri sees his appearance as a challenge from the God he serves -- a sign that he is not in divine favour.

      Driven mad by his obsession, Salieri engages in a campaign to denigrate and destroy his rival, and thereby the deity that has deserted him...

       I first saw Amadeus 17 years ago when my high school put it on as their annual production. TO date, I have not seen the 1984 motion picture, nor have I read the play text. And to be honest, it did not matter. Neither did the three-and-a-half runtime (with intermission). 

      Because this production is fantastic. 

      I had heard about the National Theatre's Live productions for years, and this was my first time watching one. I had held off for a long time, because live theatre on a screen sounded like a terrible experience.

      Theatre and film are completely distinct from each other, and one of the key distinctions is the power of the close-up. It is the divining rod, separating the mediums and the types of performances and stories that each can portray.

      Far from the stilted, remote experience I was prepared for, the choreography of the performers, the minimalist but impressionistic, moving sets and mobile orchestra was captured perfectly. The camera-work was dynamic and -- most impressively -- completely unobtrusive.

      The production itself is directed by Michael Longhurst, but whoever organised the filming strategy does a brilliant job of capturing the atmosphere of the production. Every cut to a new set-up feels completely appropriate, from the lingering close-up on Constanze's disbelieving face while Salieri tries to woo her, to the cut to the dramatic low angle to showcase the silhouette of the ghost during the production of Don Giovani, while Salieri, framed in the foreground, pontificates on the work's relationship to Mozart's own dead father. 

      As the title character, Gillen is exactly what you would expect: thoroughly annoying. It's intentional, of course, and since the show is framed from Salieri's point-of-view, completely appropriate. From the older man's perspective, Mozart is a cartoonish collection of hate-able qualities, from his obsession with poo jokes, to his petulant outbursts, and, most annoying of all, his complete self-awareness of his talents (as both a musician and universal irritant). Gillen brings a childlike, punkish energy to Mozart, that highlights the juxtaposition between his contemporary nature and the stolid, fossilised world around him.

      Caught between her immature, unfaithful husband and the scheming Salieri, Midnight Ramble spirit animal Karla Crome plays Mozart's wife Constanze. A welcome dose of common sense amid the madness, she essays a grounded portrait of a commoner thrust into an awkward, thankless situation. Simultaneously appalled and thrilled by Mozart, she makes for a believable counterpart to Gillen's manic portrayal, and adds a few fingers of cynicism to her scenes with Salieri. She sees through the old man's halting attempts to seduce her, gaining a sense of agency that I remember lacking from the high school production I saw. 

      While they are both very good, the acting honours go to Lucian Msamati. 

      Charting the character's arc from devout (albeit self-serving) man of god and music, to the hollow, self-loathing monster who destroys Mozart's life, Msamati is marvellous. While he handles the character's more extreme emotional states, he finds the wit and irony in the character, to make Salieri more of a relatable everyman (albeit an extremely gentrified one). 

      Able to sense Mozart's talent, but unable to match it, Salieri could become a cartoon -- an evil automaton motivated by jealousy -- but Msamati keeps his hand on the character's pulse. We feel Salieri's pain, even as we are repulsed by his actions. 

      The focus of almost every scene, Msamati is brilliant. Even as Mozart's work is brought to life around him, he remains the centre of attention -- a mere mortal helpless before the divine talent of his rival. 

      A brilliant, dynamic production of Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus feels like a living, breathing experience -- an example of how to bridge two distinct mediums, without sacrificing the pleasures of either. If you have a chance, give National Theatre Live a shot. You won't regret it.

      Sunday, 7 May 2017

      IN THEATRES: Get Out & Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2

      Get Out
      I went into this movie only knowing that it was great. I didn't watch the trailers, I didn't read the synopsis. For once, I had an opportunity to go into a movie almost totally blind.

      By the way, I'm going to spoil this movie, so come back after you've seen it.

      Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) go on a weekend trip to visit her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage. Shortly after arriving, Chris begins to realise something is not right with the family, their friends and their house staff....

      Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is something of a surprise. But if you view the movie through the same lens as his work on Keye & Peele, Get Out is cut from the same thematic cloth. Get Out is the perfect example of how the fundamental mechanics of comedy and horror are essentially the same.

      While it is not a comedy, Peele's film does satirize one under-explored aspect of racial representation in American society: the idealization and objectification of black bodies. What Ex Machina was to female bodies and agency, Get Out is to black bodies and agency.

      The villains of Get Out are not racists in the way we have learned to identify. They mythologise and obsess over black bodies, seeing them as ideals of (based off the examples in the film) physicality, sexual prowess and artistic talent. The plot of the movie boils down to white people placing their brains into the bodies of black people. At the end of the day, black people are still treated as less than human. It is an insidious form of objectification, which Peele skewers with precision.

      In terms of direction, Get Out is orchestrated with a firm hand. From the opening one-take pre-credit scene, Peele establishes himself with a strong understanding of film grammar and its potential for agitating and provoking viewers into heightened emotional states. The sound design is exquisitely precise, the shots and choice of angles are designed to be completely immersive and 

      The performances are uniformly terrific. Lead Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris with a level of amused detachment. Aware of the subtle prejudices he will have to contend with, he is on edge from minute one, trying to analyse his hosts without showing his hand. Once he cottons on to what is going on, his placid exterior slowly crumbles. It's an emotional arc that's been done before, but Kaluuya plays it without histronics, which makes the situation feel far more traumatic. Alison Williams has always been a little uncanny, and that slightly unsettling quality is put to good use here. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener bring a wonderfully understated menace to their roles, never tipping over into out-in-out horror movie villainy. By stripping out obvious tropes, Peele keeps the viewer off-balance. By refusing to frame his antagonists in conventional terms he deprives the viewer of an easy out.
      While it does have some big scares, the most unsettling scenes in Get Out are not the obvious show-stoppers. The most disturbing moments in the film are at the level of basic social interactions: Chris talking to his girlfriend's brother; Chris meeting the guests at the Armitage's party -- all scenes in which our hero has to contend with implicit racism. Peele gets a lot out of even minor beats -- the silent auction; the housekeeper staring at her own reflection.
      Ultimately, Get Out is a wonderfully unnerving experience, both on a visceral level, and as an examination of the current state of race relations in post-Obama America.

      Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2
      While my interest in Marvel is case-by-case, I am a big fan of James Gunn. Super is insanely violent yet strangely heartfelt, while PG Porn is one of the funniest web series I have ever seen.

      When it was announced that Gunn was moving over to Marvel, it sounded so weird I was in. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was great -- it was funny, offbeat and created a sympathetic band of screw-ups. Some of Gunn's edge had been worn off, but not much, and it has the same offbeat empathy for its characters that his previous work had.

      While I missed Marvel's slate last year, with this and Thor: Ragnorok in November, 2017 looks like it's going to be right up my alley.

      When we re-connect with our anti-heroes, they are working as freelance mercenaries. After a job goes sour,our heroes are split up. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are rescued by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter's long lost dad.

      Gunn deserves credit for making sure the core ensemble all have something to do. Sequels with large tasks can struggle to give everyone a reason for being in the movie. As before, Pratt's journey to learning his origins serves as the spine of the movie, but it also acts as a catalyst for the rest of the team to recognise their own familial ties -- Gamora with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Yondu (Michael Rooker) with the Ravagers who exiled him, and Racoon (Bradley Cooper) with, uh, everybody. Drax finds a friend in Ego's innocent servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is operating on the same naive bandwith as himself.

      One piece that feels a little forced is Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, in an Oscar-worthy performance*). While he is very cute and clearly a crowd-pleaser, there seem to be a few too many beats that feel like forced attempts to milk him for extra 'awws'.

      Marvel does not have the best luck when it comes to villains, but Volume 2 has the benefit of a villain with a strong connection to our hero's story. Kurt Russell is, as usual, great. His natural charm is a great cover for Ego's self-centredness, and makes his casual disregard for other beings genuinely disturbing.

      While the first 30-40 minutes, Gunn sprouts a couple of competing plot lines which cause the movie to feel a little adrift. Once Ego's real intentions are revealed, the plot pulls itself together. The first Guardians revealed a vein of overt sentiment previously missing from Gunn's work. Here, he hits the family theme a bit harder, and it makes for a few overt message moments which hit the nail on the head with a heavy 'clunk' (Gamora's reconciliation with Nebula is an obvious example, as is Yondu's 'we are the same' speech to Racoon). Despite this, the movie's emotional beats do ring true, and the actors manage to save these passages from feeling too didactic.

      The soundtrack track was a highlight of the last movie, and the sequel is similarly eclectic. I don't think it hits the same high as the first one, but as with the original movie, Gunn builds it into the movie's text in a way that syncs with the movie's focus on Peter and Ego's relationship.

      Overall, Volume 2 is a pretty strong sequel that expands upon the original's template, while deepening its characters. It might not do anything new in terms of action or spectacle, but that's not the reason these movies work. Gunn knows these characters well, and makes sure that they are always front and centre.

      *To be read sarcastically