Sunday 27 March 2016

Triple 9 by Matt Cook

What a shame this vanished so quickly from my local cinema. I immediately wanted to see it again. Triple 9 is a storming, brutal, brilliant movie. 

It's the best crime thriller I've seen since Ben Affleck's The Town. (Oddly enough, Triple 9 star's Affleck's brother Casey.) Both movies have strong sense of place — in The Town it was Boston; in Triple 9 it's a vividly evoked Atlanta.

Starting with a pulse-pounding bank heist that goes off the rails, Triple 9 is tremendously compelling and never lets up. It is also relentlessly dark and sordid. The title is a police code for "officer down" and this is a movie which is knee deep in corrupt cops.

This is the first feature credit for writer Matt Cook, who has done an ace job. The film is magnificently directed by Aussie John Hillcoat who previously distinguished himself with Lawless.

The cast of Triple 9 is rather amazing. Casey Affleck is quietly convincing, Aaron Paul plays pretty much the same character he played in Breaking Bad, and Woody Harrelson seems to be in competition with Nic Cage's character in Bad Lieutenant.  

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has previously specialised in admirable and upright characters who suffer nobly here goes off in a whole new direction as a hardnosed crook. And Kate Winslet is stunning in an equally unusual role as a viciously ruthless Jewish-Russian mob boss.

The ending doesn't quite live up to the rest of this dazzling film (how often I find myself saying that), but if you're in the market for a compelling, tough crime movie you mustn't miss it.

(Image credits: I was spoiled for choice by the nice selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 20 March 2016

London Has Fallen by Rothenberger & Benedict

When I was in LA recently they had the posters for London Has Fallen up everywhere and the strapline on them was "Bloody Hell". I thought that was pretty amusing, and rather effective. Although of course no one in England has actually said "bloody hell" since about 1964.

This movie is the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, a weak film and one I didn't like at all. It was deeply inferior to the very similar White House Down. But London Has Fallen is way better than its predecessor. Mainly because it is set in the city I love — and blasts the crap out of it. ("... the decimation of all of London's major landmarks," as the stilted dialogue puts it.)

Olympus Has Fallen was scripted by the writing team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. On this new film they get a "characters created by" acknowledgement and also lead writing credit. Christian Gudegast and Chad St John, who are not a team, get secondary script credit. The movie was directed by Babak Najafi who has worked on the TV show Banshee.

The cast, as before, is led by Gerard Butler as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, Aaron Eckhart as the president and Angela Bassett as the Secret Service director. Morgan Freeman is also knocking around in a dull and inconsequential role as the vice president. Charlotte Riley is excellent in a small part as an MI6 agent.

Mike Banning is a blunt instrument held together by "bourbon and bad choices." The writers have given him an irrelevant love interest and a baby on the way (just for once, not a sure sign the character is slated for impending death). Why bother? The guy's a killing machine.

The film begins, somewhat daringly, with the chief baddie surviving a US drone strike — at his daughter's wedding, where masses of innocent people are killed. This acknowledgement that the good guys aren't entirely good is rather refreshing, although the drone-strike-killing-innocents is one of the biggest clichés of recent times.

Anyway, we're soon in London and blowing hell out of it. I somewhat resented the movie's notion that the British police and security services could be so thoroughly and easily infiltrated by murderous terrorists. Although this does lead to the somewhat surreal and disturbing spectacle of Gerard Butler machine-gunning London cops. (A bigger problem is that the chief mole in the Brit security services is all too obvious, making for a feeble revelation at the end.)

The real bad guys, however, are of course foreigners. From "F*ckhead-istan" as Banning puts it, with his nuanced grasp of geopolitics.

For all the guns on display, Banning prefers a good old fashioned knife. And the movie exhibits a level of sadistic savagery which is reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, and actually in an odd way lends it some distinction.

It has to be said that the gunbattles are brilliantly shot — there's a memorable 360 degree pan — and the London locations are excellently used. So why did I feel so detached, and a little bored? It was the same old problem. I didn't care about the characters. As I sat there, unmoved by the film, I did a little thought experiment. What if it wasn't the president who was about to be executed live on the internet at 8pm, but the president and his cat.

Now, that would have been a story I could get caught up in.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards, though none of them feature the Bloody Hell campaign as prominently as I seem to recall the LA ones did.)

Sunday 13 March 2016

Waving Goodbye to Playboy

I've been reading Playboy magazine for decades... yes, for the articles (as the old joke goes). It was by far the best of all the men's magazines, with an unbeatable edge over both the sleazier, more explicit skin magazines (Penthouse) and the stuffier, old-fashioned men's mags (Esquire).

It was also one of the titans of magazine publishing, a genuine classic which got so many things right that it was able to continue for decade after decade, unchanged in its fundamentals. In this respect it was like the New Yorker and the National Geographic, which are also among the very few magazines I could be bothered to read. Playboy was solid, beautifully designed and it always worked. Like a vintage Rolls Royce.

When I heard that Playboy was planning to drop its nude photographs, I didn't think that was a bad thing. I figured the main difference it would make is that I could now leave the magazine lying prominently around amongst my current reading matter without receiving a scolding from my more feminist friends.

Indeed, I was rather looking forward to the new Playboy, and when I saw the first issue (March 2016), with its attractive matte cover, I eagerly bought it in a spirit of cheerful curiosity and optimism.

What I was expecting was the same old Playboy, minus nudity. What I hadn't realised was that the magazine had been completely redesigned and reconceived (or perhaps I should say misconceived).

There are good things about the magazine. The main articles are strong – an interview with Rachel Maddow; fiction by Don Winslow. And the cover is in some ways reassuringly traditional, featuring a scantily clad, fresh faced young woman, Sarah McDaniel. She's been photographed by Theo Wenner, but is posed so she appears to be taking a selfie. This, along with the Snapchat style strapline on the cover — "heyyy ;)" — is so achingly, and meretriciously, trying to be down with the kids that it made me think irresistibly of Poochie in The Simpsons.

But that's the least of the problems here. To my mind, you could get rid of the nudes, but there were certain essential aspects of Playboy you couldn't dispense with. For example, the Playboy Advisor. This feature has doled out anonymous and authoritative advice for decades. Not just about sex and relationships, like every other magazine, men's or women's, but on any topic the reader was concerned about. Food, drink, hi-fi, cars, fashion, travel, etiquette, social mores... its remit was unlimited and the genuinely expert advice it offered was spot on; and each issue featured a dozen questions, with pithy, witty, well informed and valuable answers,  making for fascinating reading.

Well, it's been replaced by a non-anonymous high profile writer, the aptly named Rachel Rabbit White, who is not an expert in anything. She responds to a single question per issue. About sex. In other words, a traditional agony aunt in a feature which is now just like every other magazine, men's or women's.

Other regular features have got the axe, like Raw Data (riveting statistics, cheekily presented). And there's also no letters page, presumably so as to smooth the transition — and not provide a forum for the tens of thousands of angry, hurt and betrayed readers who are going to rail against the destruction of their beloved mag.

But worst of all, the cartoons are all gone. Presumably they're too old fashioned — plus it's true that they don't work with the new layout. My solution to this would be to scrap the new layout. The cartoons were an essential part of the Playboy mix, and key to its popularity and longevity.

The bitter irony here is that Playboy has adopted its new look specifically in an attempt to capture the market share of magazines like Maxim. And one of the things Maxim got right when it launched, and which allowed it to become established and successful, was the inclusion of cartoons. 

God knows what is going to happen to all those great cartoonists, including Gahan Wilson, Harley Schwadron, Sidney Harris and P.C. Vey, who are now pretty much out of work. The New Yorker still uses cartoons, but Playboy was always the best paying market. So a whole generation of talented artists are out of business and will no longer be able to pay their bills.

Never mind. On the evidence of this first new issue, Playboy soon will be out of business, too. They have traded in a vintage Rolls Royce for a Prius Hybrid.

(Image credits: (Most of these links also feature interesting articles about the end of the traditional Playboy.) The March 2016 cover is from the Mirror website. The iconic October 1971, a groundbreaking image featuring African American model Darine Stern is from 680 News. The ever amusing College Issue, October 2015, is from BBC News. The rabbit head is from Miss Open. The December 2015 cover, one of the last of the old school Playboy, sniff, is from Pixhost via DL-Home. The December 1953 cover — the very first — is from USA Today. Poignantly, Marilyn now seems to be waving goodbye to Playboy.)

Sunday 6 March 2016

Trumbo by John MacNamara

This movie is catnip for people, like me, who are fascinated by screenwriting. Dalton Trumbo was one of the great writers of the golden age of Hollywood. In his towering ability, his speed, his prolific output and his cynicism, he is reminiscent of Ben Hecht.

But unlike Ben Hecht, Trumbo fell seriously afoul of the great red witchunt of the 1950s for his communist sympathies and ended up being blacklisted. Which meant, at the height of his career, he could no longer work in Hollywood... or could he?

Trumbo is a joyous, terrific movie which tells the tale of how Trumbo circumvented the blacklist. Out hero is played by Bryan Cranston, famed as Walter White in Breaking Bad, a fearless actor who has no hesitation in making himself look physically pitiful — indeed, he seems to revel in it.

The film grippingly follows the rollercoaster ride of Trumbo's career. He's the highest paid scriptwriter in Hollywood when he is destroyed by vindictive commie-haters like the despicable gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Hopper is brilliantly played by Helen Mirren, just part of a peerless cast, including Michael Stuhlbarg — who was so excellent in Steve Jobs — as Edward G. Robinson.

The only problem with the movie is that a lot of famed movie stars are among the characters. How do you cast someone to play John Wayne or Kirk Douglas? Well here we have David James Elliott and Dean O'Gorman, both of whom project some of the physical presence of the originals. But in the case of O'Gorman I felt Douglas's distinctive voice was all wrong.

Never mind, this is an exhilarating, heartbreaking movie. And one of the few I've seen which does a great job of depicting family life. Trumbo obviously had a wonderful wife (played by Diane Lane) and kids, and when you see them lose their house in the country it's a real jolt. On the other hand, watching Trumbo win not one but two Oscars while he's on the blacklist is wicked fun. Also, seeing John Goodman as a hack producer chasing a commie-hunter out of his office with a baseball bat is priceless.

Trumbo is written by John MacNamara, a prolific TV writer, and based on a book by Bruce Cook. It's directed, perhaps surprisingly, by Jay Roach who is best known for the Austin Powers comedies. MacNamara and Roach do a great job, and there's a dynamite score by Theodore Shapiro.

A wonderful film, and you don't have to be a screenwriting aficionado to love it.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards for the posters. The book cover is from Amazon.)