Sunday 29 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok by Pearson, Kyle and Yost

Okay, I feel I owe you an apology. Because here I am again writing about another silly Marvel comic book movie. Believe me, I didn't want to...

But the damned things have been so good lately. The film makers have hit a sweet spot balancing humour and thrills. 

And the result is a long run of Marvel adaptations which have been fresh and imaginative (Doctor Strange,  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spiderman: Homecoming have been three recent examples).

And Thor: Ragnarok is no exception. As a matter of fact it won me over almost completely in just the first few moments. Because it's funny. Genuinely, richly, warmly funny.

Which is not to say it fails to deliver on thrills, suspense and occasionally very dark happenings. But humour is always an option, whether an evil superbeing has his big speech undercut by misbehaving equipment or the God of Thunder is ticked off because people keep getting his title wrong.

Since I'm a writer myself this blog tends to be writer-centric. But due credit must be given here to the director of Thor: Ragnarok, one Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who was responsible for a very amusing 2014 faux-documentary about vampires (with a few werewolves thrown in) called What We Do in the Shadows.

No doubt Waititi's knack for comedy is a major reason that the new Thor movie is so good. But we should also acknowledge the three credited writers — Eric Pearson who worked on the Agent Carter TV show and Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost who co-created the animated Iron Man: Armoured Adventures TV series. Yost was also one of the writers credited on the second Thor movie, The Dark World.

Where Thor: Ragnarok really scores, though, is in its fine cast. Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki have already established their value. But this time around they are joined by an eccentric Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, who provides a lot of the movie's fun.

But it is Tessa Thompson (last seen by me in Veronica Mars) who really delights as a drunken Valkyrie, who is so soused that she falls over when she makes her grand entrance. Mark Ruffalo — when he's not a big green Hulk — is charmingly smitten with her, and one can only sympathise.

Balancing the comedy is Cate Blanchett who as Hela pulls off the difficult task of making an evil super villain effective instead of silly. She is chillingly weird and dangerous, with just a subtle hint of humour.

So there you have it. Another Marvel movie which is well worth a look. My only complaint is that we never got to see Hela ride her giant Fenris wolf.

(Image credits: the posters are from Imp Awards, where Tessa Thompson as the Valkyrie is disappointingly under-represented.)

Sunday 22 October 2017

The Hill by Ray Rigby

This is a movie I remember seeing when I was a kid, and which I was delighted to find on DVD. It was Sean Connery's first attempt to break away from his James Bond persona. 

And it was successful enough to get screened at the Cannes Film Festival. That recognition was well deserved. Connery is very impressive in it — indeed, The Hill is impressive all around.

It's an uncompromising story of brutality and the struggle for dominance in a British prison camp in North Africa in World War 2. 

Now, there's no shortage of prisoner of war movies, but The Hill is unique as far as I know in depicting a punishment camp, i.e. a camp run by British soldiers for other British soldiers who have transgressed in some fashion.

The Hill of the title is a structure which has been deliberately built in the middle of the parade ground to provide a gruelling ordeal for the prisoners who are marched up and down it under the blazing desert sun.

The film is shot in beautifully gritty black and white by Oswald Morris using an amazingly mobile camera. Morris worked extensively with John Huston, shot Lolita for Stanley Kubrick and won a BAFTA for his work on The Hill.

The film is written by Ray Rigby won both the Cannes Film Festival Award and the Writers' Guild Award for his script and was further nominated for a BAFTA (he lost to Frederick Raphael for Darling). 

The film is credited as being based on a stage play by Ray Rigby and some chap called R.S. Allen. This is all a bit mysterious because Rigby was a British TV writer with extensive credits, including the very first episode of the original black & white Avengers.

Rigby gets sole screenplay credit on the movie, wrote an excellent novel based on the same material and actually spent time in field punishment detention centres which provided him with the experience to write such a convincing and powerful drama.

Which leaves us with the question, who the hell is R.S. Allen? According to IMDB and Wikipedia, he's an American who wrote TV shows like The Flintstones. 

Now, it's not impossible that this is the guy in question, but I think it's more likely it's a further example of the internet thinking two people with the same, or similar, names are the same person. (I am often said to be Andrew Cartmell. I am not. He's a perfectly nice fellow and very talented. But I am not him.)

So, without airbrushing R.S. Allen out of history, let's celebrate the work of Ray Rigby. And also Sidney Lumet, a very talented American who does a wonderful job of directing this film.

The Hill was shot in the Spanish desert in Andalucía, which provides a very convincing substitute for North Africa. And the cast is impeccable. They all deserve praise... 

But I'm going to single out Ossie Davis, a distinguished African American actor (he also directed Cotton Comes to Harlem, the father of all Blaxploitation movies). In The Hill he does a very creditable job of portraying a West Indian soldier, convincing accent and all.

This movie still packs quite a punch today, with its depiction of cruelty and savagery in a military institution and the abrupt, remorseless ending is a knockout.

It's a reminder of a time when movies had achieved a maturity which often seems lost in our current era of comic book blockbusters.

(Image credits: The vertical yellow poster is from Imp Awards. The horizontal black and white poster is from Ian Hendry official tribute site. The hilarious Australian poster featuring an almost totally irrelevant belly dancer is also from there. The horizontal red poster is from YouTube. The green vertical poster is from Ice Poster. The red vertical ditto. The DVD cover is from Amazon. The horizontal yellow poster is from Sombrero Books, also linked above, which has a very useful article about Ray Rigby. Thanks guys.)

Sunday 15 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 by Fancher, Green and Dick

What a relief to report that this long awaited sequel — which could so easily have been a disaster — is terrific. You should rush to see it on the best screen available, and I do mean, rush, for reasons we will get to...

Discussing the origins of the new film in a Radio 4 interview, Ridley Scott modestly declares "I'm fundamentally the whole basis of the idea." These are words to fill one with dread. Because, however great a director he might be, Scott is a notorious destroyer of scripts.

However, in this case we owe him enormous thanks. Because, having had his fundamental, whole and basic idea, he was then responsible for hiring Hampton Fancher to write the film.

Fancher is the man responsible for bringing Blade Runner to the screen in the first place, back in 1982. He optioned the Philip K. Dick novel and wrote a fascinating and vivid script. Later rewrites were done on the 1982 version by David Peoples, another superb writer, and the result was the original movie we love today.

This time around, according to Scott, Hampton Fancher wrote a 100 page novella which was the essence of the new movie and then a writer called Michael Green (Smallville, Logan) came in to develop it into a script.

Judging by the final credits, though, Fancher then came back and rewrote Green. But however the process worked, the results are outstanding. And at least Philip K. Dick gets a decent screen credit this time, instead of having his name buried in the fine print at the end of the film (as was the case, reprehensibly, in the original Blade Runner).

Meanwhile Ridley Scott was too busy to direct the movie — he was preoccupied with creating the awful Alien: Covenant — and so Denis Villeneuve was hired. Which is great news.

Villeneuve is a wondrous director, and he was responsible for the drug thriller Sicario — one of my favourite movies of all time — and Arrival, a thoughtful and impressive science fiction film. 

Villeneuve is a Canadian. As, oddly enough, is Ryan Gosling, who does a superb job in a similar role to Harrison Ford in the original.

Indeed, Gosling has an odd and very effective resemblance to Ford. There are similar — and eerie — echoes with other members of the cast, notably the excellent Mackenzie Davis (another Canadian) who, in the role of the replicant "pleasure model" Mariette, strongly recalls Daryl Hannah as Pris in the original.

Gosling's portrayal of 'K' is really quite moving. The nameless K is a Blade Runner and a replicant and he is despised for being both these things. The one ray of light in his life is his 'girlfriend' Joi (Ana de Armas). But she is just a piece of software...

The movie has been taken to task for Joi: she's said to be a typical piece of male wish fulfilment and objectification of women. But I read her character very differently.

K's life is desperately empty and meaningless. The fact that Joi is the only good thing in it — and she doesn't even exist — makes him a genuinely tragic figure.

The cast is impeccable.  Robin Wright plays K's ruthless, predatory boss. And Barkhad Abdi, who showed immense star power as a Somali pirate in Captain Philips, here provides a delightful, brief appearance as the wonderfully named Dr Badger.

Sylvia Hoeks plays an unforgetably deadly female replicant called Luv, and has a truly wonderful scene — and the best line in the film — when she saves K's ass while having her fingernails painted. She unleashes a remote drone strike on a bunch of assailants and, as a shaken K struggles to get back on his feet, she mutters disgustedly, "Just do your fucking job."

And of course, it's no spoiler to tell you that Harrison Ford himself is back to do an agreeable reprise of his role as Deckard. He also has a very nice dog (I can't find the dog's name to credit) who likes to drink whiskey...

Jared Leto, however, is wasted as Niander Wallace, an all powerful billionaire who runs a business which is the equivalent of the Tyrell Corporation in the original. He has a couple of dull and pretentious scenes where he yacks on about how godlike he is.

I suspect these scenes were Ridley Scott's big contribution to the movie. Because they are virtually identical to dull and pretentious scenes with godlike billionaires in the last couple of Alien pictures.

For some reason Scott has an obsession about this.

But this isn't Ridley Scott's film, it's Denis Villeneuve's, and Scott is to be congratulated for giving Villeneuve the freedom to do it in his own way.

Denis Villeneuve is a visionary film maker and he really delivers the goods here. He has some fascinating observations on the process of making Blade Runner 2049, and you can hear them in that same radio interview

For one thing, he makes the interesting point that  in the the 1982 movie Ridley Scott reimagined Los Angeles as a kind of London — grey and pouring with rain.

And so Villeneuve has created a futuristic LA based on his native Montreal — desolate and covered with snow.

The visuals in the movie are utterly extraordinary. It's photographed by Villeneuve's regular cinematographer Roger Deakins and the "visual futurist" Syd Mead, who was responsible for so much of the look of the first film, is back again helping with the design.

It's a long film — very nearly three hours — and although I balk at this kind of duration, I wouldn't say that this movie is ever actually slow. When it's not giving us action, it's providing thought provoking, and sometimes heart breaking moments.

Utterly wonderful stuff. But I have to warn you, both times I've seen it so far has been in a virtually empty cinema.

So you should hurry to see it on the big screen. Because it looks like Blade Runner 2049 is not a hit... But then neither was the original.

(Image credits: more posters than you can shake a replicant at, at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 8 October 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle by Goldman, Vaughn and Millar

It's always a relief when a sequel isn't a disaster, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle is far from that. I thought it was great fun and a likable and faithful continuation of the first film

It has its flaws — it begins with what is now a tradition for comic book blockbusters: a big loud opening action sequence which is utterly ineffectual because the audience hasn't had a chance to warm up yet. 

But the movie soon finds its footing with savage robot hounds and the cheerful grinding of a drug dealer into hamburger. Plus it cheekily introduces us to Kingsman's American cousins, the US secret service.

And a terrific villain in the form of Poppy, played by Julianne Moore. The most fascinating aspect of the film is the way that Poppy’s evil scheme — to legalise drugs throughout the world — is actually a sane and sensible reform. 

And it’s blocked by a wicked US president who is willing to see millions die rather than end prohibition. This adds a layer of wit and even — dare I say it? — a suggestion of profundity to what is otherwise a jolly, glossy, bloodbath. 

I suppose that's the embarrassing aspect of these movies... They're so unapologetic in their depiction of slaughter as a form of comedy. And I can't deny that I'm laughing as loud as anyone.

However, there is  a moment of genuine artistry here when some butterflies painted on a wall come to beautiful, surreal life. And the same poetic imagery comes into play again at the end when the golden circle of the title turns out to also refer to the wedding ring which our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) gives his beloved.
This sequel also scores in the way Elton John puts in an amusing cameo as himself and gets to do action scenes and swear a great deal. 

And we’re reminded again that Taron Egerton can really act, as of course can Colin Firth. In a scene where they watch a friend sacrifice himself for the greater good, we can really feel their pain and loss, and see it on their faces. 

Speaking of sacrifices, this is the big flaw in both these movies. Last time they killed off Firth's character, Harry Hart, and realised that it was such a huge mistake they have to bring him back to life for this sequel. 

But they still haven’t learned their lesson and at the beginning of this movie they casually wipe out Roxy, aka Lancelot (Sophie Cookson), an excellent character and one who deserved a better fate. Roxy also got short shrift in the first film, where her story just trailed off instead of paying off.

This is because Kingsman is essentially a boys' club and girls aren't allowed to play. In the new movie Halle Berry is given very little to do. She's promoted to full secret agent status at the end, but I doubt anything will change come the third movie in this series.

I'm still kind of looking forward to it, though.

(Image credits: Plentiful posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 1 October 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard by Tom O'Connor

Once upon a time, being on the Hollywood Blacklist was a very bad thing. But these days the Script Blacklist is quite different; it's actually a good thing. It's the nickname for an annual summary of the best unproduced screenplays making the rounds.

So if you end up on it, there's a very good chance that next year your script will be produced. And that's what happened to Tom O'Connor with his screenplay, The Hitman's Bodyguard.

And it was when I heard about the Blacklist connection that this movie went from 'Get thee behind me satan' to 'Hmmm... maybe I'll go and see it after all.'

And it's not bad, at all. Admittedly I hated the dumb, lazy names of some of the characters — I mean, Asimov? Kurosawa? (And not just Kurosawa, but Takeshi Kurosawa — that's two Japanese film directors, if you're counting.) 

But there’s much more to this movie. And it’s often genuinely funny, and indeed even genuinely thrilling. There's a three sided chase — cars, motorcycle and speedboat in an Amsterdam canal — which is the first effective car chase I’ve seen in quite a while. 

Unfortunately it's followed by a long and tedious car chase and shoot out en route to the Hague. But after that there is a very effective foot chase and hand to hand fight scene in a kitchen and a tool shop to the strains of Chuck Berry’s ‘Little Queenie’. 

The European locations for the movie are very refreshing and a true bonus — and I believe they were cunningly concealed in the trailer so as not to frighten the horses; or rather the American teenagers. 

Of course, there is the ludicrous fact that the plot concerns Interpol agents running around everywhere with guns and flak vests, like a kind of European FBI. 

As I understand it, Interpol doesn't even have any agents and is just a clearinghouse for information between different national police forces. 

And I’m pretty damned sure they don’t have a giant headquarters in Manchester or ditto detention centre in Amsterdam. 

But at least this is a movie which acknowledges that Manchester and Amsterdam — and the Hague and Coventry — exist. 

And Samuel L. Jackson’s foul mouthed, violent love affair with Selma Hayek is actually rather touching. 

Which brings us to the cast, which is surprisingly top drawer. Besides Hayek in a supporting role we also have Gary Oldman as the big bad bad guy. 
Oldman's performance, and indeed O'Connor's writing for his character, elevate a cardboard villain to something rather more vivid. 

If you want some undemanding and bloodily violent summer entertainment, this will fit the bill while actually being a cut above the usual action movie fare.

(Image credits: A plethora of posters at Imp Awards.)