Monday, 30 July 2018

IN THEATRES: Unfriended - Dark Web

Obsessed with designing an app that will allow him to communicate with his girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), Matias (Colin Woodell) has stolen a laptop that will help him complete the project.

While online with a group of friends, he begins to burrow into his new machine, discovering a hidden cache of videos, and a link to an illegal online forum known as The River, where its mysterious denizens buy and sell their personal brands of pain and suffering. 

Soon, Mattias and his friends are drawn into a running battle with the laptop's original owner, and the other members of the mysterious cabal of psychopaths.

I had no idea that this movie was a sequel, and thankfully it will have no bearing on your viewing experience.

This movie has a premise which could come off as extremely contrived. We are forced to watch all the action on a computer screen, with individual windows for other characters and the important action to tackle place on. It is bleedingly obvious what is going on in terms of suspension of disbelief.

But I have to say, the filmmakers managed to pull it off. All of the acting is good, the character dynamics feel natural and are fun to track (One note about the cast: Somebody at Blumhouse needs to give Betty Gabriel an office. She has been in almost every single Blumhouse movie (The Purge: Election YearGet OutUpgrade and this) I have seen in the last two years). Throughout the movie we get interesting glimpses of their lives e.g. a marriage proposal leads to inferred discord with a homophobic family; one character's mother interrupts the main characters' through line to badger her out of the 'game'.

Dark Web is a nu-age spin on a sub-genre I love - the locked room thriller. Like Rear Window, Narrow Margin and Road Games, we are trapped in a single location, but one that becomes a contained world with a small community of characters. While the main story is incredibly tense, I really enjoyed the first half, which is basically a cyber-dramaedy, with Matthias's storyline offset by the character games of the rest of the cast. If this stuff was done poorly, or missing entirely, the silliness of the premise would be exposed.

But by spending so much time on Matthias, Amaya and his friends, it makes the whole thing more immersive.

Some of the scares are probably rote shocks that will lose impact on re-watch, but considering how much attention hacking has been given recently (particularly the recent story about Russian hackers attacking US utilities). Few films have successfully managed to make the internet scary, but Dark Web nails it. Of course, the movie goes to some ridiculous extremes by the end, but even some of those plot turns feel like they are not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

There is one sequence involving a SWAT team, which plays upon the militarisation of American police. And while it is a popcorn flick, the movie does have some meat.

Like A Quiet Place, this movie includes a subplot involving a disabled character - Matias's girlfriend Amaya, played by Stephanie Nogueras - where the focus is not their disability, but rather the non-disabled characters' inability to overcome their own ableism. The movie's plot ultimately hinges on their relationship, and his unwillingness to meet her halfway. As the reviewer on Film School Rejects notes, he stole the laptop so he could finish working on a programme to help him understand her, rather than trying to learn her language - and hence, gaining a knowledge of her culture that will strengthen their bond. This is a throwaway horror movie, but I am impressed by how two genre movies have been able to create storylines about disabled characters that do not fit the usual ableist stereotypes.

There is little real violence, but the filmmakers deliver some absolutely horrific plot reveals in the final stretch. There is one sequence in which a character is forced to choose between saving two loved ones - we do not see anything explicit, but thanks to the investment the filmmakers have made in these characters, this action still feels like a violation.

Is Dark Web a masterpiece? No, but it is a really good movie. It is a fun genre piece with interesting characters and exploits its premise to the full. It may lose some sense in the final reel but that just adds to the fun.

After watching so many Blumhouse movies over the last couple of years, I think it has reconnected me with the kind of low-budget sci-fi/horror movies that I grew up loving. They may not have the violence or the slight tang of unsavoury nastiness that 70s and 80s genre flicks have, but I think Blumhouse have been around for so long, and have been so consistent in their approach, that they have staked out their own uniquer place in the pop culture zeitgeist.

As a collection of films, ideas and filmmakers, there is no brand like Blumhouse around, and no filmmaking unit that I look forward to more. In 20 years, I can guarantee that your average film and genre fan will look back on this period, and Blumhouse in particular, with the same excitement and obsessiveness as my generation do the films of Amicus, Troma, New World and Cannon.


The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge: Election Year

Get Out

Happy Death Day


The First Purge

Sunday, 29 July 2018


Big Nick (Gerard Butler) is a big cop with a bad reputation and a love of donuts. His latest case involves a gang of violent bank robbers who have killed cops. Big Nick does not like this.

With the clocking ticking down to the robbers' next big score, Big Nick will have to go above and beyond (including having sex with the bad guy's favourite stripper) to bring these men to death. Or justice. Whatever comes first.

The only thing that would make this movie better is if it featured a scene in which Gerard Butler and Pablo Schrieber stand inches from each other, and pull down their pants to finally decide who is bigger.

The latest instalment in Gerard Butler's one-man attempt to become the 80s action star of the 2010s, Den of Thieves rvteams the burly Scot with London Has Fallen scribe Christian Gudegast. If the Mike Banning films pitch Butler as the heir to the 80s hard body action genre of Sly and Arnie, Den of Thieves is a testosterone-fueled riff on Heat.

This movie is so close to Heat in terms of its narrative specifics (the opening scene is basically the same, just set at night), and its attempt to create a dichotomy between Big Nick and Ray (Pablo Schreiber), the leader of the robbers, that it ends up feeling like a weird game of Mad Libs between a couple of bros with some brews.

But whereas the struggle between Hannah (Pacino) and McCauley (DeNiro) was between different codes, Den tries to pitch both sides as two gangs, one that has badges, and one that has 50 Cent. That idea would be interesting, but outside of Butler's performance, I'm not sure that idea filters into the movie. It comes off more as a battle between two brands of machismo: Butler as a wild man; Schrieber as a soldier' with various degrees of beta male scurrying between them. I mentioned it earlier, but there really is a sequence where Butler scopes out Schrieber's favourite stripper, and then runs into Schrieber post-hook up wearing nothing but a towel.

Ultimately it's pointless trying to draw parallels - Den of Thieves is just an action movie, in which the hero's injuries act as a purifying ritual preparing him for his final victory, while the villains' signify how close to death they are.

The real highlight of the movie are the scenes of Butler off-work, and the pinnacle is the sequence where Big Nick parades into a party his wife is attending, to make a big show of signing the divorce papers, is wonderfully silly, but there needed to be more of this.

The scenes of his home life are  just an excuse to show off how much of a macho loner Butler is. He cannot be contained by monogamy! With how virile he is, I am surprised they did not lean into the sleaze and give him multiple girlfriends and ex-wives ala Richard Gere's bent cop in Internal Affairs (1990).

The action scenes are decent - there is some confusion in terms of geography  but overall they work. The final shootout is a great idea on paper - it takes place in the middle of a traffic jam. Like all the action, it is begging for some more long takes to show off the choreography, but it is such a cool idea for a set piece that the average execution does not work against it.

Den of Thieves is probably destined to be a Netflix-boosted semi-classic. It's totally watchable, but mostly for the parts (any scene where Butler alphas another dude) that you probably would not expect (the action).

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997)

Jeff (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are in the middle of moving from the east coast to California.  When their car breaks down in the middle of the desert, she hitches a lift from a friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) to get help.

When she does not return, Jeff tries to figure out what happened. Soon, it becomes clear that Amy has been taken by a group of unscrupulous kidnappers.

With time running out, can Jeff outwit these evil men before Amy's time runs out?

I watched this movie after a debate with someone about why I was not interested in watching Ant-Man and the Wasp, despite the good buzz.

Watching this film really crystallised where my taste is at in this Marvel-centric time that we are in. Breakdown is not a big movie - it runs a brisk 90-ish minutes, features a few scenes of vehicular action and that is about it. And it is so exciting.

Co-written and directed by Jonathan Mostow (U-571Terminator 3Breakdown is an underrated gem. A no-nonsense thriller, it is not a particularly deep or complex movie. It is a story about someone who is not special in any particular way who is pushed to extraordinary lengths to save a loved one.

It is a pure, simple story with a strong, visceral drive: our heroes are average joes who are moving across country. They have financial problems, but their relationship does not seem to be strained: there is literally nothing exceptional or interesting about them. And that is so refreshing.

It also works for the story - the frightening part of the story is that the reason they are targeted is because the kidnappers clock their new car as a sign of affluence. In order to keep his wife alive, Jeff has to play into their perceptions of him - one of the key suspense threads is waiting for the villains to find out it is a ruse.

As Jeff, Kurt Russell is great. Despite his credibility as an action star in Escape from New York and Tango and Cash, he brings a nervy credibility to the milquetoast. What works about Russell as an action star is that he always feels like an everyman - it allows him to play the Eastwood-style outsider (Snake Plissken) with no interest in geopolitics, and the buffoonish sidekick who thinks he is John Wayne in Big Trouble In Little China. With Jeff, he is playing a guy with no comprehension of what he has gotten into. Jeff is not somebody who is used to being this scared, or angry. There is actually a sense that Jeff is terrified of his own rage.

At no point does he feel like an action guy - thrillers like this occasionally let their protagonists suddenly gain proficiency in firing a gun or firing a gun. Jeff always feels one step behind the ball.

The filmmakers downplay Jeff's metamorphosis, keeping him in the reactive role for two thirds of the movie, ending when he himself is kidnapped. This movie's effect is comparable to a rubber band being pulled back, as we watch Russell lose more and more ground to the villains. When the tables finally turn, it is like the band snaps back.

One of the joys of this movie is how small it feels. Despite most of the film taking place in cars, it rarely feels like a chase movie. There are few real chase sequences, or major stunts. Relatively speaking, as a Hollywood thriller Breakdown feels down-to-earth. Combined with Russell's performance, this level of verisimilitude gives the movie a level of danger these kinds of movies rarely attain.

A really great movie, Breakdown deserves to ranked alongside Steven Spielberg's Duel and the Ozploitation classic Roadgames as one of the best road-set suspense thrillers.

Monday, 23 July 2018

IN THEATRES: Equalizer 2

Denzel returns as Robert McCall to equalise more people into an early mass grave after the only friend he has/significant female character in the movie (Melissa Leo) is brutally murdered.

I liked the first Equaliser. It's a fun action movie that gets in, does the job and gets out. It had a couple of interesting qualities (good acting, a fun villain) but was just generic enough that a more ambitious sequel sounded intriguing.

While it is fun, Equaliser 2 feels a little bit more cookie cutter than its (already pretty generic) predecessor.

Every element of the first movie felt familiar, but there was at least a smattering of interesting touches to add a bit of flavour (the one that really sticks in the mind is the minor bad guy with a bald head, a stove pipe beard and a kaiser moustache).

Equaliser 2 feels like the same recipe, but made totally to template, with generic ingredients and no love or attention.

First of all, the inciting incident is total 80s b-movie tacky story-telling: from the beginning, you can see Leo's death coming. There is even. a line ('I'm the only friend you got') which was so on the nose I thought it was only shot for the trailer. The inclusion of Pedro Pascal as the only other character of significance makes it fairly easy to figure out who is responsible for her death.

I was expecting there to be something more unexpected (how about making Leo the villain?) but the filmmakers do not deviate from the obvious path.

Leo's death scene plays out like a sequel to her hair-pulling histrionics from Olympus Has Fallen (also directed by Fuqua) - Leo is ambushed by two assailants in her hotel room, cueing an extended scene in which she alternately beats and is beaten by the villains. Plenty of blood and screaming included.

The one interesting aspect of this sequence is how long it goes on, with Leo turning the tables on her attackers. In the end, Fuqua cuts away from her death. I was surprised at the restraint (it turns out to be in service of a plot reveal).

I had three problems with the scene:

a) killing Leo is just a lazy way of personalising the story.

b) the whole point of the Equaliser is that he helps people. He does not need a personal story.

c) while it is cool to see Leo lay the smack down, it feels tokenistic, considering her fate (and the lack of opportunities she has had in the films to show off these skills).

As with the first movie, McCall is paired with a younger person who helps to break out of a bad situation. Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) plays Miles, a young man with a talent for art who is falling into drugs and gangs.

This subplot is where the politics of The Equaliser are foregrounded. In a scene that feels reminiscent of a million action movies, McCall finds Miles in a drug den and uses his equalising skills to get him out. This leads to an extended monologue from McCall about personal responsibility, brushing aside any context (Miles's brother's death; or broader issues like systemic racism). McCall's blunt approach to personal problems may be an extension of the TV show, but it also calls back the messaging of action movies featuring ageing stars, which would often emphasise how the action hero's 'old school' approach to life is applicable to contemporary issues (while also being superior to contemporary ways of addressing them).

While it is familiar, there is something oddly out-dated and disquieting about this subplot, mostly because McCall's mentoring of Miles does not feel like tough love so much as it recalls the arbitrary brutality of Lean On Me's Joe Louis Clark (Morgan Freeman). It is hard to see how this action hero who solves problems by equalising people with guns and corkscrews can equalise personal problems.

My biggest disappointment with this movie are the villains. On paper, they sound promising: four of McCall's former colleagues have gone private, working as contract killers. One of the joys of the first movie was that the villain was basically an evil version of McCall, with a similar skillset that made him a formidable foe. Taking that bad guy, and multiplying him for the sequel makes sense.

Sadly, the filmmakers do not take advantage of this to create some great set pieces wherein McCall has to out-think his opponents.

The final sequence is not bad - McCall lures the Fearsome Foursome (copyright, Tim George) to the coastal town he used to live in. The town has been evacuated due to a massive storm, so the final showdown is basically One Equaliser v four not-Equalisers in the middle of storm-swept ghost town. In concept, it is great.

But in execution, the scene leaves something to be desired. Aside from Pascal (who takes up position as a sniper with a viewer of the entire town), none of the other not-Equalisers are given any distinguishing skills or personality (the one bad guy with a beard is nowhere near as memorable as Kaiser Mo Stovepipe from the first movie!). To add further indignity, there is nothing special about any of their showdowns with McCall - they die as innocuously as the cannon fodder he dispatches in the rest of the movie.

Pedro Pascal is a fine actor, but at no point does he feel like an equal to Denzel Washington. He feels more believable as the corrupt government stooge who (spoilers) killed Melissa Leo.

Overall, while it is never terrible, Equaliser 2 never really surpasses the unpretentious charms of the original film.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

IN THEATRES: Skyscraper

Former FBI agent Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is now a security consultant for skyscrapers. His latest job is to run a risk assessment on the world's tallest building, the Pearl. When terrorists attack the building, it falls to Will to get inside the building and save his family.

The time when I was growing up was the era of the Die Hard ripoff. The successor to the 80s trend of one-man-army action flicks (Rambo, Commando, Invasion USA etc) from 1988 through 1997, Hollywood studios turned out variants on John McTiernan's classic, from 'Die Hard on a bus' (Speed) through to 'Die Hard in a reform school' (Toy Soldiers), 'Die Hard on a boat' (Under Siege) and 'Die Hard on a plane' (Con Air and Air Force One).

As with all trends, the 'Die Hard on a...' ran its course. But every now and then, a movie comes out harkens back to those movies - 2013's double whammy of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down being the most recent examples.

And now we have Skyscraper, a worthy addition to this second wave of 'Die Hard on a [thing]' movies. Following the success of the more comedically-geared Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle and Rampage, Skyscraper might be Dwayne Johnson's most straightforward attempt at an old school action movie.

There were elements of this movie that filled me with joy - not just from the nostalgia of watching movies like this, but the visceral excitement of watching it done so well. Right from the opening scenes, Skyscraper wastes no time in setting up our hero and the key location.

Every beat of this story, and the characters within it, plays put with no fuss or dallying. So many action movies now feel leaden and overlong - Skyscraper moves brisk through its expository opening while also weaving in moments for us to identify with the Sawyers.

Call it cheesy if you like, but I loved how unpretentious Skyscraper was in following the conventions of action movies past. Nothing about it feels new, but it all feels functional to the story.

It also benefits from a great sense of scale. Even with Dwayne Johnson as the lead, the filmmakers emphasise how small he is in comparison to the challenges he faces - even without his disability. The use of sound in particular - the most vivid example is the roar of the wind, and the creaking of the crane as Johnson shuffles along it toward the building.

The obstacles our hero faces are considerably less fantastical than the perils facing other blockbusters - which is not to say they have any basis in reality. It is more of a case of Skyscraper's movie logic is that of 1990s action cinema. Our hero can jump from a crane to a building, fall from that same building multiple times, and survive other potentially fatal events (stabbing, shootings and fire) and survive them all. But unlike the Fast movies, where characters do not react to any of the antics they get up to, Sawyer is constantly terrified, out of breath and at least shows a level of exhaustion and pain after he overcomes every obstacle.

The movie is not perfect. Skyscraper does not boast the characterisation of the best Die Hard clones - Johnson's family are winsome, but exist merely as motivation for our hero to climb and jump off tall things. Meanwhile the villains are completely colourless - they do not even have any defining eccentricities or quirks to make them more interesting. This is a movie that stars Noah Wyle - a great character actor - as a supporting villain, and gives him nothing to do.

And ironically considering the pedigree of its star and director - the film suffers from a near-total lack of humour. For such a clear genre throwback, it is weird that the tone is the most contemporary element of the movie. While the situation is dire, the movie could have used some more relief.

Despite, these flaws, at its basis Skyscraper is an obstacle course for the Rock to jump, punch, and manfully lurch through to save his family. All the effort of the filmmakers has been put into making every one of the set-pieces as tense and exciting as possible.

Skyscraper is not smart or deep in any way, but Rawson Marshall Thuber's film has a keen understanding of the weight and feel of being suspended hundreds and thousands of feet in the air. It is a pure visceral fear that is usually drowned out by CGI and fantasy elements. As a back-to-basics, high concept action picture this is Johnson's best solo action vehicle since The Rundown.


Die Hard rip-offs (Den of Geek)

Friday, 20 July 2018

IN THEATRES: The First Purge

America is in chaos. Disenchanted voters ignore the main parties and elect a new extremist party, the New Founding Fathers, who are intent on reversing the country's moral and economic decline. The centrepiece of their platform is a radical idea to eliminate America's poorest and non-WASP.

Cast as a national day of release for all citizens, the NFFA decide to test this 'purge' concept in a controlled environment: Staten Island. With the promise of financial rewards for participants, the 'Purge' is proving popular, despite protests from local resident/community activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and local crime boss Dmitri (Y'lan Noel).

Once Purge night begins, our heroes try to survive the night, while the Purge's creators follow events from offsite. When the expected mayhem does not escalate, the NFFA deploy their backup plan, infiltrating the community with groups of mercenaries, white supremacists and other groups who are more than happy to deliver on the violence.

As this organised slaughter begins, it falls to Dmitri to take a stand to save his community from the first Purge...

Though a prequel, this film feels like a logical progression for the franchise. As America's sociopolitical situation has declined, The Purge's violent re-purposing of the countries's fissures - race, guns capitalistic excess - have become more explicit and savage. There is no real satire here, and absolutely no subtext:

The New Founding Fathers, with their bundling up of racial cleansing within religious morality, is only slightly off from the Republican Party's current ideological bent, and the film foregrounds images of racial oppression (Ku Klux Klan cloaks, SS uniforms and insignia, and attackers in police uniforms stalking black people).

At its heart, The Purge movies are old-school exploitation cinema. Like the low-budget filmmakers of the sixties and seventies, they take taboo ideas and put them in front of the camera with little tact or real nuance. That may be a dividing line for some people. I'm on the 'pro' side of that line - these movies feel synced into the current zeitgeist in a way that feels extremely cathartic.

These movies are about the satisfaction of watching a literal Nazi get his neck broken. Or stabbed. Or shot. Or blown up.

And on that count, this movie is extremely satisfying.

Series creator James DeMonaco takes a break from the director's chair for this instalment, replaced by Burning Sands writer-director filmmaker Gerard McMurray.

I will be honest - DeMonaco's direction has never been a key part of the franchise's appeal: his camerawork is too shaky; his editing too berserk. By contrast, McMurray adopts a more composed and controlled aesthetic. He uses extreme close-ups, steady framing, and judicious use of extreme close-ups. The duration of his shots also feels longer.

You might read that last paragraph and roll your eyes, but there is a level of striaght-forward craftsmanship here that really improves the viewing experience. The absence of DeMonaco's jerky camerawork, aggressive editing and muddy colour palette gives this movie a leg up over the previous movies.

While I do not think it is the best overall, on an aesthetic level this movie is more unsettling. The previous movies have some great moments of tension (think the dysfunctional family our heroes visit in Anarchy), but it is impeded by DeMonaco's direction. With a more deliberate pace, and emphasis on sound design, this movie is scary in a way that the previous movies have not been.

Now one of the chief joys of the last two Purge movies is the presence of Frank Grillo as the grizzled ex-cop Leo Barnes. For those missing his bad-assery, I have to say this movie does not drop the ball. The third act of this movie is a series of great action sequences involving Dmitri as he flips the tables on the state-sanctioned Purgers who are turning Staten Island into a war zone.

The brutal stairwell fight between Dmitri and two attackers is shot in a series of steady, moving wide shots  that allow you to follow the choreography. Special kudos to the people behind the sound design - the stabbing and neck-breaking sounds are very loud and satisfying.

As far as the acting goes, this might be the most earnest. There are certain characters in the previous movies which go way OTT: the woman with the megaphone and the auction announcer in Anarchy; the candy girls in Election Year. Those performances feel like an extension of the tone, which is aiming for a more ironic edge ala Paul Verhoeven's work (RoboCop; Total Recall). In contrast, The First Purge is far more serious in tone, and even the more cartoonish character Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) is not played for laughs.

 Lex Scott Davis and Y'lan Noel (HBO's Insecure) are good as the leads. Davis is basically playing the conscience of the movie. The movie does a good job of making her strong, without turning her into an action hero. It has become shorthand to show the female lead's strength and agency through guns and/martial arts. Nya is a community organiser, not a superhero, and Davis does a good job of making Nya not feel like a girl scout - she comes across as an informed member of the community, a pragmatic personality who knows everybody and is not afraid to stand up to its more threatening denizens.

Noel, as Dmitri is the real standout. Dmitri is a character that could come off as a cliche - the gang boss who really has a heart of gold. As the character with the biggest arc, Noel finds a way to make his transformation from intimidating, self-involved gangster to battered protector of his people. Noel treats his men like members of a family business, and he manages to strike the right balance between Dmitri's cold approach to his men's Purge-related transgressions, with his concern for their welfare.

Establishing the lead character of the movie as a Republican stereotype of black masculinity is one of the movie's more daring conceits - and Noel's performance gives Dmitri a sense of moral conflict that makes him more empathetic, and makes his transformation into action hero the visceral highpoint of the movie.

A few more words about the tone.

There is a dead-eyed momentum to the movie, as the filmmakers force the viewer to reckon with these first Purgers as people with so few options that accepting money to kill people makes sense. It is not because they are greedy; but because they are looking for a way out.

Rather like Election Year, the film spends time with Dmitri, Nya and other people living in the community, creating an empathetic group of people who will become the Purge's first victims. It is easy to see The First Purge as more of a disaster movie, playing into our knowledge of the Purge by creating a world that has never experienced it.

While it is a prequel, The First Purge never feels like it is ticking off boxes, or is hemmed in by having to hew to specific events or characters (here's looking at you, Solo). The story feels self-contained and unique to itself. One of the things I love about the series is the focus on single stories - so many franchises are hung up on building multi-film stories. It is detrimental to good story-telling, and outside Marvel it has not been successful (and even that franchise has its problems).

Darker and more politically incisive than its forbearers, The First Purge may be the most mature and disturbing entry in the series. Long may it prosper!


The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge: Election Year

Thursday, 19 July 2018

NOIR WATCH 2018: Death of a Cyclist (J.A. Bardem, 1955)

On their way back from a romantic sojourn, Juan (Alberto Closas) and his married lover Maria (Lucia Bose) accidentally run over a cyclist. Fearing that their affair will be uncovered, they flee the scene. While Juan is overwhelmed by guilt, Maria fears there may have been a witness to the incident...

A remarkable one-off from Franco-era Spain, J.A. Bardem's Death of a Cyclist is an understated but scathing examination of its times and a darkly comic thriller.

The best thing about this movie is its total reliance on character dynamics to generate tension. There are no extra subplots - cutaways to the police investigation, or (my expectation) some Postman Always Rings Twice-style plan to get rid of Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), the snarky art critic who tries to blackmail Maria about the affair.

The titular event is a catalyst for intense self-reflection. Through Juan and Maria, the film becomes a critique of the characters'; affluent world. Juan is stuck between his memories of 'the war' (implied to be the Spanish Civil War) and his sightlessness in the present with Maria as the bridge between the two. Juan has a cushy job that he gained through his brother-in-law. Since he has achieved the good life through no effort of his own: he is in love with a woman he cannot have - and now he has killed someone, and gotten away with it.

Juan recognises the hypocrisy of his life, and seeks out to restore a sense of morality to this world. In the end, Maria cannot break away from the lifestyle and betrays him.  

One of the most interesting features of Cyclist compared with most of the American noir I am familiar with, is that the characters are in no danger of being punished: the police have no leads; Maria's husband does not believe Rafa's insinuations; or, when he does, gives Maria an ultimatum that she ultimately accepts. The resolution of the Rafa subplot reveals the true depth of the characters' hypocrisy - Maria's husband knows that she is with him because of what he can give her, and can accept that in exchange for her loyalty.

A femme fatale is usually defined by independence - Maria is ultimately the servant of forces she cannot control. Her greed does her in, leading to an ironic repetition of the event that led to it. Order has been restored, of a kind - like our protagonists, the cyclist flees the scene.

Filmmaker J.A. Bardem was arrested repeatedly throughout his career (including after this movie), and it is easy to read the film as a critique of Franco's Spain, with all the signifiers of wealth and privilege hiding the trauma of the country's recent post, and the contemporary police state. 

Despite the heavy cultural context, I have to say that of the noir I have reviewed this year, Death of a Cyclist might have been the most purely enjoyable. The film has a dark wit that feels universal e.g. Rafa's various veiled references to what he knows. The humour is bittersweet - even though the circle closed at the climax, the cyclist's escape at the end implies that this sequence of events will be repeated. Juan and Maria are not unique - they are symptoms of a broader moral vacuum.

The movie is built on a series of narrative and aesthetic ironies: transitions between scenes create juxtapositions of irony and suspense - a scene that ends with the threat of the couple's affair is followed by a shot of Maria's husband timed, composed and performed as though the character is reacting to this knowledge. Throughout the movie, Bardem introduces a series of false cavalry charges - transitions between scenes blend together to create ironic re-framings e.g. Juan and Maria fear being revealed will be followed by a shot of another character looking on, as though observing the previous scene - the punchline is that our anti-heroes are never in danger of being found out.

A truly great movie, Death of a Cyclist is one of the best films I have seen on the big screen this year.

Friday, 6 July 2018


We finally have a release date for the podcast: on July 28, the James Bond Cocktail Hour will go live with FIVE episodes.

Episode One features  reviews of the book and movie that started it all: Ian Fleming's Casino Royale from 1953 and 1962's Dr No, starring Sean Connery.

The second episode is a review of 1983's Octopussy, starring everybody's favourite eyebrow, Roger Moore!

Then we go back to the origins of that movie with 1966's short story collection Octopussy & The Living Daylights.

The next episode is a double review of 2015's Spectre (starring Daniel Craig) & the 1987 novel No Deals, Mr Bond, written by John Gardener, the most prolific author of James Bond novels. 

The last episode of this batch will be a review of 2011's Carte Blanche, a one-off Bond adventure by American thriller author Jeffrey Deaver.

On 3 August, you will be getting introductions to two cinematic Bonds, starting with Pierce Brosnan in 1999's The World Is Not Enough, and Timothy Dalton in 1989's License to Kill! 

On 10 August, you shall be getting two book reviews: Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun and Raymond Benson's  Zero Minus Ten.

On 17 August, we will be going into outer space with Roger Moore in 1979's MoonrakerThis episode will be paired with our first supplemental episode, in which Hugh unveils his theory about the Bond franchise.

On 24 August, we shall conclude this onslaught with a final pair of episodes: a supplemental episode covering the 2012 documentary Everything Or Nothing about the history of James Bond, and the debut of another recurring special, our first  'Rogue Review' of non-Bond spy action: Mission: Impossible 6, starring Tom Cruise.
After that you can expect new episodes on the third Friday of every month, starting on 22 September, until the end of the year.

Den of Geek articles

Bond reviews
Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill


Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

AFS Screening: Only Angels Have Wings

In the port town of Barranca in South America, Geoff (Cary Grant) and the pilots of Barranca Airways are responsible for getting mail from the port into the interior. To do so, they need to get their planes through a treacherous mountain pass blighted by unpredictable weather and poor visibility.

It's a hard life, made a little harder by the airline's declining financial state: they have reached the point where one more downed plane will force it to close down forever.

On top of these professional pressures, Geoff has to contend with the arrival of two new variables: Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a young American woman who becomes infatuated with Geoff; and Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), a new hire who is infamous for leaving his engineer to die on a during a plane crash earlier in his career. What makes it worse is that MacPherson has brought his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth), Geoff's old flame...

The Howard Hawks movies I have seen, at least the ones that stick in the mind, all share one thing: a 'family' unit of men defined by a mutual code of honour and professionalism. In this respect, Only Angels Have Wings, which I saw for the first time this week, fits that description to a T.

A quintessential Howard Hawks joint, Only Angels Have Wings is based around a a group of professional airmail pilots determined to complete their runs no matter what obstacles - real or female - get in their way.
One element that always fascinates me about the visual vocabulary of studio filmmakers like Hawks is the focus on letting scenes play out in a single wide shot. The camera only moves when it has to; close-ups and cuts are used to emphasise a dramatic reveal or shift in power within a scene. It is good, solid craftsmanship, and Hawks is a great example of the style. His use of simple coverage and extended takes allow scenes to build and play out at their own pace.

Hawks was famous for rehearsing  extensively with his casts, and adding their ideas and improvisations into scenes. This is a major part of why his movies have such a sense of community and family. Scenes like Jeff and the Kid's (Thomas Mitchell) playful tussle over a coin, or Bonnie (Jean Arthur) showing Jeff up at the piano, feel spontaneous and immersive into the characters' world.
While the focus on a self-contained community of professionals with a shared code was great, I was surprised by how underwhelming the female characters were - Hawks has created several strong female characters, but I found Jean Arthur's character a little listless. She starts out outraged at Jeff's lack of emotion when a fellow flyer dies, and then in the space of a few minutes becomes infatuated with him.

It's helped by the fact that Arthur and Grant have good chemistry, but I still found her turn a little too convenient. It's clear what the intention is - Hawks is creating a world where life and death are constantly in the balance, and the nature of the flyers' work requires a level of emotional disconnect in order for them to function. Jeff is the most detached of the flyers, and his sparring with the open-hearted Bonnie becomes the main site of conflict.

Despite the movie's darkness, the movie is incredibly funny and warm. And while the movie is sold on the imagery of aerial adventures, the movie's strongest element is the interactions between the ensemble while they are grounded, waiting for the weather to clear. I love movies based around characters forced together in confined spaces, and Only Angels Have Wings is at its most exciting when it is just about the relationships - will Bonnie melt Jeff's reserve? Will the Kid avenge himself for his brother's death? Will MacPherson prove his worth? The flying sequences stand up pretty well, considering the technical limitations of the time, but they are not the reason to watch the movie -  it is probably in part thanks to those technical limitations that the movie is so dramatically sound.

Monday, 2 July 2018

The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco, 2014)

Around Los Angeles, people are preparing themselves for the annual Purge. People either barricade themselves in their homes, or arm themselves to go out into the streets to work out whatever dark urges they have been keeping bottled up all year.

One of those people is a man called 'Sergeant' (Leo Barnes). His son was killed by a drunk driver, and he intends to take vengeance against the man who ruined his life.

Of course, since it is Purge Night hose plans are immediately de-railed when he runs into a small group of people stuck out on the street. Now this unwilling chaperone is in a race against time to get these people out of harm's way - and accomplish his mission - before the Purge comes to a close...

The Purge movies are one of the more fascinating horror franchises of recent times. The original made money, but was regarded as something of a creative misfire. The general consensus was that the filmmakers created a fascinating world, but then relegated this to being the backdrop of a generic home invasion thriller.

The sequels were able to build off of its success and expand upon the premise in more interesting ways. As the series continued, it feels like it began to find a sense of righteous anger which gave its sequels a sense of relevance the original lacked. Global events like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have made the series feel like a bizzaro commentary on the state of the world.

The Purge movies have become my go-to horror franchise. I've spent years trying to get my head around the appeal of long-running franchises like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, and now I finally have my own version of that.

And what is great about the franchise thus far is that each film has some unique feature to recommend it - the original is a home invasion thriller, Anarchy is a chase movie, and Election Year is a barely veiled screed against the inequalities of the American socio-political system.

With the release of The First Purge, I went back to have a look at the instalment which gave the franchise its legs - and my personal favourite of the franchise.

Man, this movie rocks. I liked it the first time I watched it, and it just gets better and better the more times I watch it. Between the first and third movies, Anarchy stands out as the qualitative high point of the franchise. Expanding upon the premise, the story is basically a chase thriller in which a small group of people have to navigate a post-apocalyptic environment.

The appeal of The Purge is how it taps into primal urges, particularly the desire for reciprocity against wrongs, minor and major. Over the course of The Purge: Anarchy we get a cross-section of different responses: a white-collar criminal crucified for his misdeeds; Rosa's (Carmen Ejogo) neighbour's attempt sexually assault her after she has previously turned him down; a woman shoots her sister for having an affair with her husband; and then there is 'Sergeant', real name Leo Barnes (Grillo), who is seeking natural justice after the justice system failed to punish the man who killed his son.

Leo's storyline is the heart of the movie, providing the core conflict that the premise demands: will Leo follow through on his plan - thereby legitimising the Purge - or not? It's a solid dramatic line, lifted by a terrifically terse performance from Frank Grillo. As the anti-hero Leo, his character sums up the primal appeal of this series.

Grillo has a great facility for gruff minimalism that evokes the great harasses of b-movies past, but with an emotional payoff that you would never get from Bronson, Marvin or Eastwood.

As the characters trying to keep Leo on the side of the angels, Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul play Eva and Cali, a single mother and daughter who Leo rescues from a squad of mysterious goons who are rounding up people for rich families to hunt in the controlled environments of their compounds. Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez play an estranged couple who Leo and the others stumble into - while they get a great entrance, they are the least interesting part of the film and feel the most like cannon fodder.

Together they are buffeted from one bizarre set piece to the next, as DeMonaco uses his expanded canvas to show the true depravity of this near-future apocalypse. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is watching these characters slowly figure out how to survive, with whatever humanity they have slowly whittled down as the odds get more and more insurmountable.

While it is the movie that really pays off the potential of the premise, The Purge: Anarchy also fills out and expands upon the series' politics, positioning the face of the resistance as non-white and poor - here embodied by Michael K. Williams as anti-Purge activist Carmelo Johns, who uses the Purge as an opportunity to ambush the rich white people running the show.

It is easy to compare The Purge films with the work fo John Carpenter - most obviously Escape from New York (with a dollop of They Live's commentary about an upper class preying on the poor). While it is not particularly smart or satirical, in its own way The Purge: Anarchy (and more so its sequel Election Year) has a rough grasp of the frustration and terrors of modern-day America. 

Following the election of 45, The Purge's radical politics feel even more timely, and the films feel weirdly necessary. With DeMonaco ceding directorial reins to African American filmmaker Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) , for the latest entry, The First Purge, it feels like a natural evolution for a series that appears to be more invested in pursuing an overt political message. Pretty radical for a series of cheap thrillers featuring psychos in masks!

And for that, we have to thank The Purge: Anarchy. This movie proved that the franchise could work without a big star like Ethan Hawke, and as a series of self-contained stories linked solely by the concept. In this way, The Purge franchise can literally go anywhere it wants to. 

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