Sunday, 22 March 2015

Kingsman by Goldman, Vaughn and Millar

Mark Millar is a prolific and successful writer of comics, an impressive number of which have been adapted into films. 

His work (with John Romita) was the basis for Kick Ass, which was a lot of fun, while his work with J.G. Jones was adapted as Wanted, which proved to be a thundering dud. Now his comic The Secret Service, illustrated by the great Dave Gibbon, hits the screen as Kingsman, which is deliriously good.

I must warn you, though, that it is an incredibly violent film: Colin Firth slaughters an entire church full of loathsome fundamentalists to the strains of 'Free Bird'. 

It is also, very, very funny. I was hooked on it from the (violent) opening sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman have actually managed to pull off a 21st Century spy thriller in the vein of a classic James Bond fantasy movie. (They were the team behind Kick Ass, too.)

The film is also rooted in reality, thanks to the neat narrative conceit of enlisting a young working class hoodlum into the elite cadre of posh spies. This is Eggsy, played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Eggsy is an engaging character. Pursued by the cops with his friends while joyriding in a stolen car, he crashes the vehicle and gets caught rather than running over a fox and getting away clean. His friend in the back seat reprimands him. "It was vermin, bruv. You should have driven it over." Eggsy responds with wistful bitterness: "Should have done a lot of things."

It's a great line, and a great movie, charting Eggsy's training as a 'Kingsman' secret agent. There is a top drawer cast, with Colin Firth as Eggsy's mentor and the 007 surrogate, Mark Strong as a 'Q' figure and Michael Caine as a malign 'M'.

Most importantly there is Samuel L. Jackson lisping his way brilliantly through the role of Valentine, as splendid an evil villain as ever coughed up by the Bond franchise, superbly supported with the most deadly of hench-women in the shape of the blade-limbed Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella.

My only beef is that Eggsy's fellow trainee Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is left with too little to do in the explosive grand finale. 

If you are up for the extravagant fantasy violence, Kingsman is a sheer delight. Lynyrd Skynyrd's greatest hit will never sound the same again, though.

(Image credits: All the posters are from the redoubtable, and fast downloading, Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Homeland by Gordon and Gansa

There is such a plethora of great television drama out there (mostly American, it has to be said) that I have only just caught up with Homeland. It came highly recommended by friends, and they weren't wrong.

Homeland is instantly riveting. It tells the story of — don't worry about spoilers, all this is revealed early, in episode 1 — an American marine sergeant, Nicholas Brody, who has been held captive in Afghanistan for eight years. 

Brody is rescued and is returned home, a hero. But a female CIA operative, Carrie Mathison, has reason to believe he has been turned and is in fact a sleeper agent for the enemy. Tension builds when no one believes her and it looks like our "hero" might even be a candidate for high political office.

It's great stuff, and our heroine is a terrific character. I particularly love the fact that Carrie is a jazz fan, which leads to one of the great title sequences in TV history — featuring Louis Armstrong. And a lovely jazz theme for the show. 

Carrie is played by Claire Danes, Brody is British actor Damian Lewis (recently a terrif Henry VIII in Wolf Hall). They are both splendid, as is Morena Baccarin (the evil alien empress from V) as Brody's  wife Jessica.

Homeland was developed for American television by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa and they've done a splendid job. The show is based on an Israeli drama known in English as Prisoners of War created by Gideon Raff. 

Prisoners of War is considerably different, though. In it three soldiers are brought home and it is a shell game — which have to guess which one might be the traitor.

I haven't seen Prisoners, but Homeland is a delight. I'm on episode five of Season 1 and it is looking good. Where else do you get a show which drops the F-bomb every week in its title sequence?

Just one question. Why does Brody's wife call him Brody instead of Nicholas?

(Image credits: The Hero/Threat poster is from Wikipedia. The red burka is from IMDB. The others are from Collider.)

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Blackhat by Foehl and Mann

Blackhat is vanishing from your cineplex screens even as I write these words, after a very brief run. Which is a criminal shame, because it's Michael Mann's best picture in years and a strong return to form. 

It tells the story of a series of dangerous cyber strikes (performed by the Blackhat of the title) and the race against time to thwart them.

The first attack is on a Chinese nuclear power station and it's a powerful and suspenseful sequence, with Mann's virtual camera diving into the innards of the computer system and showing us the microscopic details of the hacking — electrons scuttling along chip pathways like rats under the floorboards.

With the power station reduced to a radioactive no-go zone, Chinese security officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked to find the culprit. 

Dawai is a computer expert and he recognises the RAT (remote access tool) used by the hackers as being based on one written by his old friend Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth — also known as Thor or James Hunt, depending on which movie you saw last). Hathaway is cooling his heels in prison on a long sentence for his own cyber crimes, but Dawai gets him sprung.

Also along for the ride are Dawai's sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang), who is a computer expert in her own right and begins to fall for bad boy Hathaway. Keeping an eye on them all is Viola Davis as the lead FBI agent Carol Barrett.

Brother and sister Lien and Dawai were both raised in the States, so I initially found it annoying that they had such different accents, and so disparate a command of English. 

But Wei Tang is such a splendid, affecting actress that my objections soon dropped away. It's an admirably strong cast, and includes the impressive Yorick van Wageningen (the rapist social worker from Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who is a perfect choice for the chief badguy — the eponymous black hat.

With an excellent script written by Morgan Davis Foehl (his first movie credit), Blackhat has great characters, fascinating locations and impressive action sequences, both virtual footage inside computers and brilliantly filmed real-world shoot outs. It delivers on suspense and surprises and deserves to be a much greater success.

Catch this film on the big screen if you can. If not, put it on your list for home viewing.
(Image credits: Remarkably thin pickings for this movie at the usual sites, which I suppose is an index of its lack of blockbuster success. The poster is from Imp Awards. The other images are all from the very useful Collider.)

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Jupiter Ascending by the Wachowskis

Jupiter Ascending is a science fiction adventure movie in the classic mould — a space opera — from the Wachowskis (formerly the Wachowski brothers) who created The Matrix and recently made the strange, extraordinary and beautiful Cloud Atlas, which wasn't a box office success but was a marvellous film. 

Perhaps bearing Cloud Atlas in mind, Jupiter Ascending is obviously an attempt at a mainstream hit, but it misses by a breathtaking extent. It does have an outstanding cast and spectacular, gorgeous special effects. And it delivers extravagant, imaginative action sequences which, unfortunately, leave the viewer cold.

This is because we don't care anything about the character involved, just one of the fatal flaws in an amazingly weak screenplay. The movie tells the story of Jupiter Jones (yes, really), a young American-Russian woman. 

Jupiter's Russian family is depicted with hair-raising racism. Just try imagining African Americans being subjected to the offensive hijinks depicted in this movie and you'll see what I mean. 

Jupiter has a miserable existence of poverty and drudgery. She works as a skivvy in the houses of the rich where she cleans toilets. In fact, the Wachowskis are so obsessed with her cleaning toilets that we get five shots of her doing so and then the Big Evil Space Bad Guy even has a speech about it.

But, in the manner of classic fairy tales and cliched fantasy scripts everywhere, Jupiter has a destiny. She is the chosen one. The reincarnation, or genetic recurrence, of a space princess. So evil people from space want her dead and good guys from space intend to save her.

Sadly, Jupiter is a miserably badly written character. She is weak, stupid and utterly passive — the other protagonists move her around the story like a piece of baggage. By the time she finally stands up for herself at the end, it's really too late.

The only reason we have any sympathy at all for Jupiter is because she's played by the luminous Mila Kunis. Kunis is a proper movie star. She lights up the screen and all the film makers need to do is shoot a close-up of her to make the movie watchable — albeit briefly.

Channing Tatum plays a disgraced space cop come to rescue Jupiter. He brings dignity and conviction to a thankless role and carries off some awful dialogue with admirable grace. However, because he has wolf DNA he's buried under some silly make up which minimises his screen presence. You screw with a movie star's look at your peril, Wachowskis.

There is one effective scene in the movie, where Tatum takes Kunis to an odd, dilapidated safe house out in the sticks surrounded by bee hives. Here Channing's old commanding officer, played by Sean Bean, is waiting for them. 

Bean (decapitated in Game of Thrones a few seasons ago) is another terrific actor. And he and Kunis have a startling amount of chemistry between them in their brief scenes together — way more than Kunis and Tatum, sadly for the film makers (all those posters pushing an epic romance between Kunis and Tatum are offering an empty promise). This bit in the bee house, thanks to the odd environment and Bean's contribution, is the only segment of the movie which really comes to life.

Jupiter Ascending features a memorable villain portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, who under-plays it in a chilling fashion, instead of eating the scenery. And there are epic space battles, ravishing science fiction panoramas and brilliant special effects shots — of such a calibre that I wished I'd seen the movie in the 3D print. 

There are also occasional flashes of wit and imagination to remind us the the Wachowskis have previously written some great scripts. But nothing is going to save this one. If you want to see this sort of space opera done properly, then check out Guardians of the Galaxy.

(Image credits: the posters are from Imp Awards. The still of Mila — we're on first name terms — is from Wall Paper.)

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton

My brother James and I are both admirers of the American crime writer Lawrence Block. When James told me that Block kept mentioning another writer, Sue Grafton (for instance, Block's characters were often to be found enjoying Grafton's crime novels) I decided I had to check her out. 

In selecting my first Grafton book to read, I used my tried and tested method... I waited to see what turned up cheap in charity shops or at jumble sales.

What turned up was Q is for Quarry and T is for Trespass, the 17th and 20th adventures in the alphabet-titled series featuring female private eye Kinsey Millhone (great name). 

Kinsey is a very engaging character. A bit of a slob, she tries to go jogging every day but doesn't quite make it. And she has a real junk food jones, whimpering with pleasure as she devours her quarter pounder with cheese. Besides having created an engaging and well developed character, Sue Grafton also scores highly for the scrupulous research she does. A sense of rock solid authenticity pervades her writing. I particularly like the way the retired (but still active) cops in the book always lock their guns in the trunk of their car before they go into a restaurant. Details like that convey a strong sense of everyday reality which elevates Grafton's work above the competition.

But what really I really admire is the quality of her writing, which vividly evokes the southern California coastal locale: "The surf looked forbidding, a silt-churning cold, applauded only by the sea lions who waited off shore, barking their approval."

Q is for Quarry tells the story of a cold case, a murdered teenage girl who has never been identified and whose killer remains at large. Kinsey and her partners go to the forensic unit to inspect the victims remains: "... we all fell into a respectful silence. Eighteen years after the violence of her death there was only the crackle of white paper and the snap of gloves."

I love Grafton's observations, and her similes. An unpleasant revelation is like finding "a nest of spiders in the pocket on an old overcoat." And there are admirable, punchy descriptions of characters — "I could smell whiskey fumes seeping through her pores like toxic waste."

Q is for Quarry proved to be an engrossing, methodical procedural which at the end moves towards a satisfying — and unexpected — conclusion with great efficiency and considerable excitement. After 16 previous books in this series Grafton has obviously perfected her technique. She's a master of the genre.

At the end of a post I usually find something to moan about, so what is my complaint here? Well, perhaps there's a little too much about Kinsey's family background in this story. But to regular readers this may well be catnip. Then there's the fact that both the retired cops who work with Kinsey are seriously ill, and that makes the story a bit of a downer. 

However, I doubt very much that this will be an issue with the next Kinsey Millhone adventure... which I am already eager to read. In fact, I've just started it

 (Image credits: all the book covers are from Good Reads.)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

White Heat by Goff & Roberts and Kellog

Of course I knew White Heat was a classic movie, but I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. And I had no idea what a knockout it was. It's aged amazingly well and is one of the best movies of the 1940s. A classic crime thriller, people also call it a film noir, but personally I don't think it fits into that category by almost any criteria (except the music). Who cares? It's great.

The director is Raoul Walsh, who does a spectacular job. The script is also terrific, well researched, beautifully paced and extremely well organised. Some of the dialogue is the usual phony hardboiled poppycock of the era, but we'll forgive them that. 

The screenplay is by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts from a story by Virginia Kellogg. Goff & Roberts (the ampersand is appropriate, since they were a screenwriting team) had a long and successful career in together movies followed by an equally long and successful career together in television — they created Charlie's Angels! But we'll forgive them that, too.

Virginia Kellogg wrote for the movies for over twenty years, including the Anthony Mann crime thriller T-Men, though her women's prison movie Caged is probably best remembered now — as something of a camp classic.

White Heat doesn't have the depth of feeling, or quite the complexity of characterisation of High Sierra — also directed by Raoul Walsh. It does, however, start with a brisk robbery sequence which is set in the High Sierra mountains, the first of two major heist setpieces in the movie. And White Heat is very dynamic and gripping, moving swiftly from heist to manhunt to prison to escape to climactic heist. The basic spine of the story is how an undercover cop (Edmond O'Brien) infiltrates the gang of dangerous psychopath Cody Jarrett (James Cagney).

It's a post-code Hollywood production, which means we have the ludicrous spectacle of a gangster and his moll not only having separate beds but separate bedrooms. Although the writers do manage to smuggle in a daring line from Cody's Ma when she sneers at the girl "Wearing out the mattress."

The moll Verna is played by Virginia Mayo. She's given a rather two-dimensional, stereotyped character to play. But she adds some lovely touches. After a drinking session she decides it's bedtime and jumps up onto Cagney and gets him to give her a piggyback upstairs. Heading for the big heist at the end she wishes him luck, and spits out her chewing gum just before she gives him a goodbye kiss. 

Cody's relationship with his mother really makes the film distinctive. Although, interestingly, Cagney's very first movie, Sinner's Holiday (1930), also featured him as a mother fixated hoodlum. Rather disturbingly, in White Heat the undercover cop ends up as a surrogate mother figure for Cody after Ma's death.

Ma is bumped off in an amazingly cold and casual way. It happens offscreen and we only learn about it when the jailed Cagney asks a fellow con for news of her on the outside. The answer that comes back, passed along the line, is brutally terse: "She's dead." And Cody, who is a dangerous lunatic at the best of times, flips. 

Goff & Roberts pull off a beautiful twist in the screenplay. It's what I think of as a Peter O'Donnell reversal, where you set up an elaborate plot development and create audience expectation for it — and then startle us by discarding it for something else entirely. In this case there's a jailbreak all ready to go, with the undercover cop setting up an oscillator to track the fugitives. Everything goes wrong and Cagney's gang escape in an entirely different way. But the neatly set up oscillator proves crucial later in the story. Great writing, boys.

Cagney is magnificent. His believability and charismatic naturalism makes almost everyone else look phony and mannered, though Margaret Wycherly is impressively restrained and menacing as Ma Jarrett.

We also have to note Max Steiner's overpowering noir music score. I think I heard a theremin in there somewhere.

And of course the unforgettable climax with Cagney immolated ("Top of the world, Ma!") atop the Horton spheres in the chemical plant. This explosively apocalyptic ending anticipates Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.

(Image credits: The vintage poster of Cagney and Mayo is from Cagney Online. The poster of Cagney solo is from Films Noir Net. As is the "Top of the world" vignette. Cody and Verna in the car with Ma is from Derek Winnert's Classic Film Review. The shotgun and tear gas image is from Dr Macro's high quality movie scans. The title shot is from the Twenty Four Frames movie blog. Absurdly, it seems impossible to find an image of the Horton spheres from White Heat. The one here is from the the Provincial Archives of Alberta (!) via Flickr.)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Killer Inside Me by Curran and Winterbottom

The Killer Inside Me isn't a recent release, but it was one of the best films of 2010 and I just watched it again on Blu-ray, so it's fresh in my mind. It's based on a novel by Jim Thompson and is probably the ultimate Thompson adaptation in its quality and fidelity. The other contender is Sam Peckinpah's version of The Getaway, with a script by Walter Hill. But The Getaway cops out on Thompson's nightmare vision of things by dispensing with his apocalyptic conclusion in favour of a happy ending — quite rightly, I think. Jim Thompson's hellish sensibility is not for everyone. Indeed I often think it's not for me.

Written in 1952, The Killer Inside Me was ahead of its time in being a first person narrative by a murderous psychopath, one which forces us to inhabit his skin and see the world through his eyes. 

And, being Jim Thompson, this sadistic killer also happens to be a cop. Stanley Kubrick praised the novel highly and used Thompson as a screenwriter on two of his early films, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

Now, more than half a century after publication, this book finds its way to the screen in a magnificent version, brilliantly directed by Michael Winterbottom and faithfully scripted by John Curran, who directed the impressive Somerset Maugham adaptation The Painted Veil. 

(Intriguingly, there is also a 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me starring Stacy Keach which I have yet to see.)

The new film stars Casey Affleck, who is perfect as the nightmare protagonist Lou Ford, and Jessica Alba as the prostitute who loves him. Alba's presence lights up the screen but, this being a Jim Thompson story, her fate is horrible. 

The brutality meted out to the women in his life by Lou Ford is hard to take, and many viewers have reacted with violent distaste. I can understand that, but it is true to Jim Thompson's vision and Winterbottom and Curran are to be congratulated on their courage. Like I said, this is one Thompson adaptation which doesn't cop out.

(And it should be noted that Lou is no sexist. He also murders men and boys. And at one point he puts his cigar out in the palm of a drunk's hand. He may be a homicidal sadist, but he doesn't discriminate.)

It's also a perversely beautiful movie, especially on Blu-ray, with luminous photography by Marcel Zyskind and a gorgeous 1950s graphic-style title sequence. And I guess it says something about me that what I find much more offensive than any act of violence in the film is the fact that poor John Curran is forced to share his screen credit with three producers instead of getting a card to himself, like a writer should.

(Image credits: the blue poster and the Jessica Alba head shot and the Russian one are from Imp Awards. Smoking in the car is from What Culture. Politely holding hat is from Out Now. )