Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Checked out the latest episodes of the James Bond Cocktail Hour?

The third season of the James Bond Cocktail Hour is out now. 

Follow the podcast on IG @jbchpod and on Twitter @jbchpod007.

The episodes are as follows:

No Time To Die Trailer 2 review 

Nobody Lives For Ever (by John Gardner)

How to introduce James Bond

Casino Royale '06 Part One & Two

McClory v Fleming

Thunderball (novel)

Remembering Sean Connery

Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965)

A look at Kevin McClory's Warhead (1976)

Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983)

Remixing Thunderball

The Hunt for Red October

The Man with the Golden Gun

This month's episodes were an epic, two-part discussion of Bond tropes with frequent guest Stitch.

Check them out at the links below!

Part One

Part Two

You can listen to these and future episodes wherever you listen to podcasts!

Emma (Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) prides herself on her talents as a matchmaker and her independence. When a new companion arrives, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), Emma takes it upon herself to educate her in the ways of higher society, and find her a suitable husband.

Throw in love triangles, miscommunication and Emma’s frenemy George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), and you have…

This is one of those movies that lived up to the vibe of the trailer. Even though it has been over a year, I still remember thinking there is something a bit stilted about the trailer for Emma.

There is something a bit stilted about this movie. 

The  comic timing is a bit off - the edits on reactions are slow; the shot selection favours tableaux over anything else; the over-use of to-camera close-ups during dialogue scenes.

The latter make the movie genuinely off -putting during scenes where we need to track the shifts and changes in their relationships.

What makes it all so bizarre is that every now and then the comedy does work: there is a bit of bickering in the quiet before the ball begins the blocking of Emma and Harriet sitting dejectedly while Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates blathers on and on.

The movie wants to be a light romp but there is something lifeless and leaden about it.

The acting is generally good - Hart is terrifyingly verbose; Bill Nighy is fun as the hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse; Johnny Flynn (Lovesick) is great as Emma’s offsides.

The one performer who the movie cannot work with is Taylor Joy - I like her in the role, but there is a disconnect between her and the other players that I cannot put my finger on. Part of the reason might be those constant to-camera close ups. Taylor-Joy is an arresting performer, but she and the rest of the cast look absolutely terrifying in these Kubrickian close-ups.

The acting is good and the production design is lovely, but I never managed to get onto the movie’s wavelength. I cannot say that Emma is not watchable, but it comes off a bit too stately and awkward to become truly immersive.

Watch this space. I might take another look at this one. Or review Clueless.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Focus (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2015)

When conman Nicky (Will Smith) meets Jess (Margot Robbie), an inexperienced grifter, he offers to mentor her.

Years after they first met, Nicky and Jess meet again. Nicky is involved in a new con which just so happens to involve Jess's boyfriend, a rich and dangerous motorsport owner (Rodrigo Santoro).

Is Jess still in the game? Will their old attraction return? Will they escape?

This movie makes me wonder if Hollywood knows how to make star vehicles any more. 

Even more now than its time of release, Focus feels out of time.

It is a heist caper starring movie stars - at least one established and one up-and-comer. It is built on chemistry and sex appeal. The heist element is a bonus, but is mostly  framework for good-looking people doing sexy things in beautiful places.

For its first half, Focus makes a good stab at being that movie.

Smith and Robbie have good chemistry and the movie has a sense of fun and style as she learns the ropes.

If the movie had continued in this direction it would have been great. It would have been a soufflé but there is nothing wrong with that.

And then the movie teases some drama that could have worked: Smith is a recovering gambler who gets drawn into an escalating game of one-upmanship with a tycoon (BD Wong). He ends up betting all of the crews’ haul and it looks like the movie is setting up for a story about a super-successful man who has to wrestle with his demons. 

Nope. It turns out to be another con, and the movie spins out in a completely different direction with no clear motivations or stakes.

The movie ends up being really unsatisfying. It does feel like you could split the movie into two uneven halves -the first sexy and fun; the second a more leaden and serious caper that is not that interesting.

The main issue is that the filmmakers lose control of the tropes of con artist movies, and it makes it hard to track what the real story is.

The weaknesses of its second half are compounded by the BD Wong interlude, which feels like a clearer set up for a darker storyline, but with an opportunity for redemption: Smith would lose the crew’s money and then have to come up with a new con to get his friends’ money back.

I could not get over a feeling deja vu as the movie spiralled. A day after watching Focus, it hit me. Focus reminded me of another movie starring Will Smith that felt like two halves that did not work together, either dramatically or tonally. 

Like Focus, Hancock starts as a comedic spin on a familiar genre - and then halfway through it completely changes tack and completely undoes whatever good will the first will had developed. It is a strange and unfortunate echo.

In the end, Focus does not follow its own rules and provide a clear focus on its story.  

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Ransom (Ron Howard, 1996)

Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) is a man who seems to have it all. He has a happy family with his wife Kate (Renee Russo) and son Sean (Brawley Nolte). And he runs an airline that is expanding rapidly.

But when Sean is kidnapped, everything that Tom holds dear begins to crumble.

When he realises how ruthless the kidnapper is, Tom is pushed to make a decision that could either save his family - or doom them all.

There is something wrong with Ransom - something in its DNA that keeps me from fully enjoying it.

Mel Gibson does not help. Gibson is an actor who is fascinating to watch in torment. His whole career circles around characters forced to go through immense physical and psychological torment. For over thirty years, that sadomasochistic undercurrent made him compelling.

But in recent years, as most of you will probably know, it turned out that the darkness Gibson brought to the screen was all too real.

Gibson is a man powered by rage. I know this because it is an emotion I know well. He carries the sam bottled fury I used to feel in my own father, a constant tension that made every day terrifying. I never noticed the connection between him and Gibson until 2010, when Gibson's recorded screaming rants and threats against his ex-wife reached the internet. Suddenly, I felt like I knew Gibson in a way that was all too familiar. 

I have not watched too many of his movies since - I enjoyed Get The Gringo, but I think it was a case of Gibson matching with a role.

Going into this movie, I wondered how Gibson's present would affect my viewing. 

What makes it interesting is that Ransom goes out of its way to complicate how we should feel about Tom). He has lied about his business activities, and he put a man in prison. In any other movie, Tom could be the villain - or played by Michael Douglas. 

Gibson plays him with a sense of self-awareness, an underlying sense of dread that his past sins will come back to haunt him. He might be an up-and-coming millionaire, but he still has a conscience. 

Once Sean is gone, Gibson is on more familiar territory as the grieving father. Gibson plays Tom like an open wound, unable to hold himself together. Tom is no tough guy. He is not even a wild man.

Yet the film circles around to provide an outlet for Mullen to enact righteous vengeance on the man who kidnapped his son. It is not a one-to-one comparison with Gibson's action hero roles - Gibson brings a weakness and clumsy physicality to the role that distinguishes him from the physical grace of Riggs and Mad Max - but the focus on violent retribution is clearly meant to act as a moral cleanse. By going through all this pain, Tom is able to redeem himself for his past failings.

It is such a strange experience watching this man who has so thoroughly destroyed his onscreen persona. Gibson delivers a great performance and is totally believable as a milquetoast. But there is always an edge to it - I am caught between recognising the power of the performance, and the offscreen history of the man performing him.  

Renee Russo is a fine actress who always seems better than the roles she is in. Reuniting with Gibson after Lethal Weapon 3, they have good chemistry as a long-married couple. I do wish the movie was more of a character piece than a straight genre picture - Russo in particular feels like she is missing a couple more scenes. The emphasis is almost entirely on Gibson, with Russo relegated to reacting to his increasingly manic actions.

Delroy Lindo is terrific as the negotiator - calm and empathetic, he is the most compelling of the film's protagonists. He got all the plaudits on the film's release and he is still the most interesting character in the movie. In fact, he was so good in the role he ended up playing effectively the same character in the short-lived TV series Kidnapped in 2006.

Gary Sinise is also good as the bad guy, although his bite is not as bad as his bark. Part of the reason may be because the movie is so cookie-cutter and safe, Sinise’s visibility as a performer (Forrest Gump) feels conventional - here is a famous actor playing a bad guy.

The movie was directed by Ron Howard and I cannot help thinking this is the underlying issue. His natural safeness means this movie is way less visceral than it thinks it is.

Part of it is that aesthetically, the movie is far too bland. It never feels grimey or claustrophobic. Even the scenes of Sean with the kidnappers lack tension and atmosphere. 

Howard shoots and stages the action competently. But I never felt that invested.The movie tries to play with the class dynamics of the kidnappers and the victim, but whatever commentary the filmmakers intended backfires because the movie is ultimately about a rich guy turning the ransom demand into a bounty for the kidnappers.In the end the only vaguely interesting point the movie makes is that being a policeman grants you power over ex-cons. Eveb then, the movie makes clear that Sinise is a unique evil who has taken advantage of the system.

The actors provide a lot of gravitas, but in the end Ransom is just too rote to stick in the mind.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011)

 Hotshot lawyer Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey) finds his amoral practice upended when he becomes suspicious that his latest client, Louis Ross Roulet (Ryan Philippe) is guilty of assaulting a sex worker.

As Haller continues his investigation, it becomes clear that this offence is merely the latest in a pattern - a trail of crimes that leads back to one of Heller’s old cases.

Complicating Haller’s dilemma, Roulet makes a series of moves that show he is willing to destroy Haller and his family to keep himself out of jail. 


 I used to find courtroom thrillers a bit dull when I was growing up. Back in the nineties, these movies were all the rage. Nowadays, I find myself gravitating toward movie genres that have disappeared. The over abundance of blockbusters has made me more hungry for genres that do not exist as movies. Based on a novel by Michael Connelly, I dodged The Lincoln Lawyer on its original release in 2011. It came out just before the hype of Matthew McConaughey’s comeback.


He is on good form as the title character - his easy-going charm works for the character, and he does a good job of shedding that charm as the film progresses.

Everything about the movie is solid - the cast are good; the direction is un-showy; the script unfolds the mystery at a good clip.

Ryan Philippe is a reticent performer who seems to work best as a good-looking shit. He is well-cast here, and adds a mocking jock-like bluntness that makes him even more unlikeable.

The rest of the cast are solid gold. Marisa Tomei plays Heller’s ex-wife, William H. Macy plays Heller’s investigator, Josh Lucas plays the prosecutor and Bryan Cranston plays a veteran detective who distrusts the Lincoln Lawyer. 

The one downside to having a cast this stacked is that they all feel too big for the roles they are  playing. William H Macy is in this movie for only about ten minutes. It just feels weird.

If I have problems, they have to do with the climax. The movie’s suspense is most effective midway through the movie. 

However, as the trial gets going, the filmmakers start to lose control. There are a couple of points during the third act where the tension drained away. The viewer is denied certain information about what Mickey Haller’s plans are, we are introduced to a character who has an offscreen relationship with our protagonist that we are expected to invest in  and the police investigation that has been established as a looming threat over Mickey Haller takes too much of a backseat to the trial..

Those issues aside, I do credit the movie for feeling almost completely self-contained. We do getteases of a wider universe, and elements of the Lincoln Lawyer’s past, but it feels like world-building rather than set up for a franchise. 

It is a pity - I would not mind another case or two with Haller and his friends/rivals.

Released at the dawn of the Marvel Age, before Hollywood became obsessed with serialised IP, The Lincoln Lawyer feels more unique, which is weird and depressing, considering how ubiquitous the genre of courtroom thrillers used to be.

A thoroughly solid and entertaining thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer is worth checking out.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh, 2014)

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is recruited as an analyst for the CIA. When he stumbles upon a scheme to topple the US dollar, Ryan is parachuted into Moscow to figure out what is going on.

A testament to Hollywood's inability to build stars without attaching them to an existing property, Shadow Recruit is an attempt to bring Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan back to the big screen in the younger guise of Chris Pine.

Following in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, Chris Pine is playing a Ryan that is not just younger than his predecessors, but post-Hollywood’s obsession with prequels.

I was going to review this as part of a Jack Ryan miniseries, but this movie is so different from its predecessors that it did not feel necessary.An originalprequel updated to the present, we see Ryan’s origins, including the accident which diverted from a career as a soldier to behind-the-scenes analyst.For the first half of the movie, Shadow Recruit is hardly earth-shattering but it is reasonably entertaining. 

Pine is good casting as Ryan, but the script never threads the needle - it is in too much of a hurry to keep the action moving, and Ryan gets a few too many action sequences which are not resolved by his wits.

The one thing it never quite nails is Ryan's domestic life. I have not read the books, but one of the chief selling points of the cinematic characterisation has been Ryan's status as a caring husband and father. One of the things I most remember about the Harrison Ford movies are the scenes with his family.

Taking place at the beginning of his relationship with Cathy (Keira Knightley), the script makes a token attempt at brining her into the action but it just feels contrived and silly. Saddled with an American accent, Knightley feels somewhat disconnected. She is not bad, but she has more chemistry with Branagh than Pine.

No one can replace Anne Archer, but I wish the movie had spent more time on their relationship. The Ryans of the Ford movies feel like a real family. The couple here feel like archetypes.

Kenneth Branagh plays the antagonist, Viktor Cherevin, a billionaire and Afghan war veteran with a shortened lifespan and a desire for vengeance against America. He is fine although he comes off as your generic Bond villain.

Kevin Costner plays Ryan’s boss, Thomas Harper. A world-weary spook with no time for Ryan’s personal business, Costner is a welcome presence but - like everybody else - he feels shortchanged.

The other thing that stands out is how disinterested the movie is in Ryan as an analyst. Once again, the movie does not seem interested in one of the key elements of the previous Ryan movies, which is process. The other movies spent a lot of time on scenes of Ryan analysing and investigating intelligence. What scenes we get in Shadow Recruit feel like cheats as Ryan and his team quickly figure out what is going on.

One of the joys of the previous Ryan movies is how tangential Ryan is to the action sequences - one of the highlights of Clear and Present Danger is watching Ford's Ryan struggle to print a file while its owner is deleting it in the next room.

These movies are about so much more than action, and the film's moments of espionage are built on so much fudged tech and easy work-arounds that there is no tension and no sense of payoff for when Ryan figures himself out of danger.

The other issue, which might explain my problems, is that movie feels far too short.The movie feels like it is just getting started when we start heading toward the climax. Shadow Recruit ultimately feels like a glorified TV pilot rather than a big screen thriller.

It is a pity - the cast are no worse than any of the previous ensembles, and the villain’s scheme is fine but all these ingredients would have been better served with a stronger script.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

OUT NOW: Promising Young Woman

Haunted by her friend's assault and the authorities' unwillingness to punish the culprit, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her nights in bars and clubs, pretending to be drunk. When men take advantage of her, she drops the act.

By day she is a hollow shell, solely focused on her nightly vigil. When an old friend re-enters her life, her static existence shifts toward a final reckoning with the people who betrayed her friend...

I was not sure I would review this movie. The primary reason being I was not sure I would have an interesting take on it. The secondary reason is I read too many interesting takes by other people that I read myself out of wanting to see it.

Thankfully, the decade known as 2020 has done wonders for my short-term memory, and a friend asked me if I wanted to go.

Promising Young Woman feels like the meeting of two legacies, one cinematic and the other real world. 

It is clearly meant to be a contemporary version of the ‘rape-revenge’ films of the late seventies and early eighties. I am not that familiar with the genre. I came across it when I read about the horror and action genres, but I have no history with that genre. The closest thing in my viewing was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The film grapples with rape culture - from the perpetrators to the bystanders and the authorities who ignore it. I think this movie deals with it with a refreshing bluntness but I think the film does not know how to resolve itself dramatically while honoring that honesty. 

Part of that honesty is the portrayal of the rapists. None of the figures in the film are presented as overtly threatening. You could call them goofy. You could call them ‘nice guys’. But being nice is easy. It is superficial. It is not the same as doing a good act. Over the last couple of years, I have been fascinated by how much being nice is held up as a virtue - the way certain figures are criticised or upheld  for their tone, rather than what they do.  

Promising Young Woman takes this theme to its extreme, by opening the movie with Adam Brody as Cassie’s first would-be attacker.

This The casting of familiar comedians and actors with ‘nice guy’ personas as Cassie’s would-be rapists is great transtextual shorthand. This aspect of the movie got under my skin and lingered. I am not sure the rest of the movie will.

Part of it is the script which feels a tad predictable in the way certain relationships develop.

I could also not square the film’s portrayal of assault with the ending. On one hand, the finale features a final comeuppance for the villains, but I could not shake an overriding lack of resolution. 

The resolution is a neat idea, but the film preceding it carried such a level of hopelessness that I could not buy into the way it ended. It is good to see bad men taken down, but the film is built on such big foundational problems (patriarchy, misogyny) that the ending felt too clean. 

Some of the stylistic choices also felt unnecessary, and I started to question the intentions of the film. The production desire veers between minimalist and incredibly garish - there is faux superficial quality to parts of the diegesis, but then there are other sequences felt stark and more lived-in. 

The constant soundtrack of pop song covers felt like it was meant for a different movie, one that is more overtly parodic - I got distracted trying to pick up what song was playing, and the choices felt really on-the-nose. Some of the choices work, but most of them are distracting.

The one element that the movie inarguably got right for me was Carey Mulligan. This is a good film, and it is a good film boosted by a great central performance. 

Mulligan was a weight and stillness which is absolutely terrifying. Cassie has been hollowed by guilt, her life reduced to a single purpose, a quest for justice in a world without it. Her performance is so good and so quietly painful, that some of the film’s more outre touches felt extraneous. All the film’s rage, irony and humanity is contained in Mulligan’s face and voice.

Her performance makes me want to watch Promising Young Woman again. 

On its collective merits, Promising Young Woman is flawed but effective. It just feels like the issues it is tackling are so much bigger than the scope of its story.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.