Archive for March, 2017

Get Out

Posted: March 31, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener and Lil Rel Howery.

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Photographer Chris Washington (Kaluuya) is nervous about meeting the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Williams) for the first time, especially when he discovers that they don’t know he is black. Rose assures him her parents will be cool about their interracial relationship. “My dad would’ve voted Obama a third time if he could have,” she assures him.  Leaving his pet dog in the safe hands of his best friend, and TSA officer, Rod (Howery) Chris sets off for the weekend with Rose.

En route they hit a deer. When a police officer arrives he insists on seeing Chris’s licence and registration, even after Rose assures the officer she was driving. Rose is outraged but Chris takes the encounter in his stride.

When they arrive at the palatial Armitage home Rose’s parents are welcoming, perhaps a little too welcoming, and Chris is disturbed to see they have two black servants. Rose’s father Dean (Whitford) advises Chris that the servants (Betty Gabriel’s Georgina and Marcus Henderson’s Walter) had been hired by his parents and he couldn’t bear to let them go. Meanwhile Rose’s mother Missy (an exceptionally creepy performance from Keener) offers to hypnotise Chris to help him quite smoking.

As the weekend proceeds, and more family members show up, Chris begins to feel increasingly uneasy, and begins to fear that he and Rose might not get out alive…

 

Get Out is a hard film to pin down, which accounts for some of its charm, but also ensures it’s something of a slow burn, but it’s a film that repays your efforts, and a film that very much plays with your expectations. Technically it’s a horror film, but it also functions as a comedy and, most of all, as satire. The ghost of The Stepford Wives looms overhead, and Peele has been very upfront about that film being a big inspiration. Whereas that film tackled gender roles, Get Out is quite patently about race, and however welcoming the Armitage clan are it’s clear from the start that something is slightly off kilter. It isn’t just that the Armitage family have black servants, as much that Georgina and Walter act so strangely, as does the sole black guest at the weekend garden party.

One of Peele’s triumphs is placing his lead in a situation where, theoretically he should be safe. This isn’t the deep south, he isn’t surrounded by good old boys waving confederate flags, or alt-right white supremacists. No, instead the racism he encounters is much more subtle and unconscious. Nobody outright says anything racist too him, yet the comments are increasingly close to the line, and the fact that the threat to Chris comes from white middle class liberals just makes it all the more uncomfortable.

I’ve been a fan of Kaluuya for some time. He was the best thing about BBC 3’s The Fades (which is saying something given the show had a strong cast) and was fantastic in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits, and it was a pleasant surprise when he showed up with an American accent in Scicario. Hopefully Get Out will secure his leading man credentials because he’s very good, especially at portraying Chris’s helplessness at certain points. He’s a good actor and a strong screen presence, not to mention handsome, damn him! He makes Chris a likeable hero you want to root for, and you will want to root for him because he’s in over his head!

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Look out, she’s got a teacup!!

Williams makes for an engaging heroine, and the two make a likeable couple. As the elder Armitage Whitford plays the part to perfection, walking a delicate tightrope between friendly and threatening. As I’ve already said Keener is a trifle less subtle, but in many ways that makes her scarier.

Threatening to steal the show however, and providing some much needed laughs on occasion, is Howery as Chris’s best friend Rod, although I did find it a little odd that a film written and directed by a black man that tackled issues of race should feature such an obvious trope as the wisecracking comic relief black best friend, but then again as I said this is a film that plays with your expectations, and perhaps the use of such a well-worn cliché was intentional given how well put together this film is (though having said that having heard how the film was originally going to end I’m glad they changed their minds because I wouldn’t have liked the film half as much if it hadn’t ended the way it does.)

Peele is a solid director, and on occasion gives us something surreal amidst all the normalcy (which isn’t remotely normal). The film is painted with quite broad brushstrokes at times, and this did make it a hard film to get into, but, much like last year’s Arrival this allowed for my mind to be somewhat blown when the rug was very firmly tugged out from under me midway through. Like Arrival the film relies on certain contrivance and narrative tricks that mean a second viewing is going to be essential to determine whether it’s quite as good as I think it is now. Do the pieces fit neatly together, or is the puzzle a little too clever for its own good?

The best horror films are ones that have something to say beyond just wanting to scare you, and in this Get Out comes up trumps. It’s unsettling, scary, but also very funny in places and I urge people to get out and see it.

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“I’m sure we’re going to have a nice relaxing weekend…”

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In Cold Blood

Posted: March 30, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

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In November 1959, a brutal crime shocks the small farming community of Holcomb in Kansas. In the early hours of a Sunday morning Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon are roused from their slumber by the arrival of two armed men. After restraining the Clutters the invaders proceed to kill them one by one.

The killers are ex-convicts, each with a long criminal history behind them. Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock is ostensibly the man in charge, and his partner is Perry Edward Smith. In demeanour and upbringing the men are very different, yet after meeting in prison they further bond over the murders of the Clutters.

The local authorities in Kansas are perplexed by the brutal, and seemingly motiveless murders. Whilst they investigate Hickock and Smith head south to Mexico, but events will see them soon return to the United States, were they will find their crimes finally catching up to them.

 

I decided to read this in an ongoing attempt to broaden my choice of reading material, and I’ve never read any Capote. Also, I got the book for free as they were handing out copies gratis at the university I work for so it seemed like fate!

After hearing about the events of that November morn, Capote travelled to Kansas, along with his friend, and fellow writer, Harper Lee. Over the course of several years Capote pulled together a detailed examination of the crime, the victims, the law enforcement personal, and of course the killers themselves.

The book was a huge hit when it was released in 1966, and whilst it can be argued that it was far from the first ‘true crime’ novel, it was the novel that saw the genre skyrocket.

I found it an interesting read. In other hands the story could have been recounted in far less words, but part of what makes this so engaging is the texture of Capote’s writing, and the meticulous research he and Lee obviously undertook. Again it is easy to imagine that the minutiae of the Clutter’s lives, and the details of Hickock and Smith’s petty histories, could have been boring, but Capote finds something interesting in the most trivial of things. Mrs Clutter’s fascination with miniature objects, Perry Smith’s addiction to chewing aspirin, even the gossip of the local postmistress. Every person in the book feels like a real person, because of course they were, but another writer could have produced mere caricatures.

Capote begins with multiple narrative strands, on the one hand detailing the final hours of the Clutter family, whilst on the other introducing us to Hickock and Smith as they arrive in town, with homicide on their minds. The Clutters are detailed so vividly that by the time the murders occur I was ready to beg for their lives. They are portrayed as good people, especially Nancy, although Capote does not shy away from some of the less salubrious elements of family life, and some things are implied, quite subtly, to suggest all was not well. From Bonnie Clutter’s obvious depression (despite the hopeful diagnosis that she was just suffering from a trapped nerve) to Nancy’s cat being poised weeks before, and the notion that she keeps smelling cigarettes, even though no one in the house. Then there is Kenyon, the young son and something of a loner (and who, looking at this with 21st Century eyes, might even have been on the Autistic spectrum).

In many ways these tiny mysteries are red herrings, because we the reader know who done it, even if the police are stymied. Capote takes the decision not to show us, at least early on, the events of that morning. As I say, I felt so close to the Clutters that I was glad of this.

After the bodies are discovered Capote changes tack, showing the impact on the townsfolk, who become fearful and paranoid about their neighbours, and the local police and Kansas Bureau of Investigations agents who are frustrated by a lack of motive, evidence, or suspects. Meanwhile we follow Hickock and Smith south of the border, where the reality of life in Mexico doesn’t quite live up to their fantasies.

If the book has a fault (beyond the widely-held view that Capote may have been somewhat economical with some aspects of the story) it is that for the most part it is the killers, not the victims or the hunters, who are centre stage, though this is unavoidable really. Capote’s evocation of the deadly duo is incredibly vivid, to the point where I began to at least empathise with them, Smith in particular, though Capote never lets you forget what each man is capable of and it’s hard to feel too sorry about where they end up.

As a snapshot of rural America before such crimes became commonplace, and of poverty and criminality in the late 1950s, this is an exceptional piece of work, a detailed examination of what was a petty and pointless crime that cost six lives for little gain. Capote is the kind of author whose literary credentials would usually have put me off, but this was a great example of gaining pleasure reading outside one’s comfort zone, and I think I might have to get hold of Breakfast at Tiffany’s now.

 

Kong: Skull Island

Posted: March 25, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly.

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Kong’s toy helicopter was his best Christmas present ever!

In 1944 an aerial duel ends with an American and a Japanese pilot having to bale out onto a nearby island. Initially they continue their battle on the ground, until interrupted by the arrival of an ape…a very BIG ape.

Flash forward to 1973 and satellites have recently begun to photograph every inch of the Earth’s surface, in the process they have discovered a hitherto unknown island which Bill Randa (Goodman) the head of an organization named Monarch believes is the mythical Skull Island. Persuading his bosses to let him tag along on a mission to the island Randa and his colleagues hire ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) to accompany them. Also making the journey is Mason Weaver (Larson) a photojournalist who’s also managed to wrangle her way onto the trip.

Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is leader of a special helicopter unit of the US army, and he and his men are tasked with ferrying the scientists onto the island, and providing security for them whilst there. As the helicopters reach Skull Island however, and begin dropping seismic charges which are supposed to help in mapping the geology of the island, they attract the attention of an ape…a very BIG ape!

 

Since his first appearance in 1933, Kong has been a big (sorry) deal. His exploits in climbing the Empire State Building, Fay Wray in hand, and of swatting at attacking biplanes rank amongst the most iconic of movie images. It was never in doubt that Kong would return, but I wonder how many of those who saw that first film eighty plus years ago would imagine that King Kong would still be around today?

The last time we saw Kong was 12 years ago in Peter Jackson’s incredibly bloated 3 hour epic that managed to completely miss the point about what made the original such a hit, namely that it wasn’t some grand sweeping epic, it was, effectively, a B movie (even if that term probably didn’t exist back then). Thankfully Skull Island has no pretensions of being a ‘proper’ film. It knows it’s ridiculous, embraces this fact and rolls with it, and whilst I can see why some people haven’t enjoyed it, I think that if you switch off your brain and roll right along with it there’s plenty to enjoy here.

I’d have loved to have been at the pitch meeting where presumably someone uttered the phrase “It’s King Kong meets Apocalypse Now!” or something similar (surely no coincidence that Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad) , and the early seventies setting suits the film perfectly, giving us something different from the 1930s setting of both the original and Jackson’s reboot, whilst still putting the film into an historical context that allows for a degree of mystery that might be missing if the film had been set in today’s interconnected world where satellites can see every inch of the globe and everyone has a camera in their pocket.

The post-Vietnam setting also provides some interesting narrative hooks about the nature of war, the inability of some soldiers to accept defeat, and the folly of attacking an enemy fighting to defend its home, and whilst it isn’t exactly subtle, and perhaps doesn’t quite follow through on some of the interesting ideas it sparks, this isn’t quite the throwaway action/adventure film it might have been.

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“You ever read the Bible, Kong?”

As leader of the army faction Jackson tones things down (just a fraction) to make Packard a relatable antagonist, he’s a man who was sent to fight a war then told he had to stop before he could win it. As he says on at least one occasion, “we’re going to win this war!” Less Colonel Kurtz than Captain Ahab he’s as almost as dangerous an enemy as the giant lizards that live under Skull Island.

As Weaver Larson acts her socks off, expressing wide eyed amazement at everything she sees. Though her billing doesn’t reflect it, in some ways she’s the film’s lead—at least the film’s human lead—providing an emotional core and, much like Wray in 1933 and Watts in 2005, being the one to forge a connection with Kong. She’s no damsel in distress however, and despite wielding a camera instead of a gun she’s no shrinking violet and has a lot of agency.

Some reviewers have taken umbrage with Reilly’s marooned aviator, but I really liked his character and I thought he, like Larson, added a lot of emotional heft to the film, some people have thought he didn’t fit tonally but, at the end of the day, it’s a film about a giant ape and an island full of monsters, and you need larger than life characters.

If there’s a weak link it’s oddly Hiddleston. He’s a good actor, and has proven he can convince as an action hero, but his former SAS captain feels a little too modern. He’s too smooth and too buff, and it doesn’t help that his character is wafer thin, and one can’t help but think someone a little earthier, Tom Hardy perhaps, might have been more convincing.

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Well Loki what we have here…

At its heart Skull Island is, in part, a war film, albeit one more like Predator than Saving Private Ryan, and part of its success is down to providing characters who could just be cannon fodder with personality. In fact some of the most amusing scenes in the film come courtesy of Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell’s sardonic double act.

Kong is the star of the show however. He might not be quite as expressive and emotional as the Kong from Jackson’s film, but he has less screen time to engage with the audience, yet still does. Which isn’t to say Kong is a shrinking violet the audience barely sees, in what some have cited as a brave move we see Kong very early on. I don’t see why this is a problem, we know what Kong looks like so let’s get him out there front and centre early on, it certainly helps make this a much more enjoyable experience than Gareth Edwards’ drab Godzilla, which featured a great creature we barely saw, and there are plenty of other creatures to sneak up on us.

The pacing is good, the cinematography superb, evoking films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon etc. and the effects are for the most part excellent, though in places a little shaky. It’s worth staying for the end of credits scene, although this does mean sitting through a lot of credits I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s a tad too throwaway, and time will tell how rewatchable it is, but for me it’s the most enjoyable monster movie in a long time. Long live Kong!

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The Thinking Man’s Bastille

By Paul Starkey

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Today he would escape from prison.

Jack had to, because incarceration was slowly killing him. Not in a physical sense, but it was slowly sapping his will to live. Already, just six months into his sentence, he saw signs of the ennui that would eventually claim his life if he didn’t break out. He slept more than ever before, yet was always tired, lethargy bordering on paralysis, and his appetite was fading like the libido of an old man. He didn’t wash very often, and sometimes went days without even brushing his teeth.

He spent most of his time on his bed reading books downloaded onto his wafer, or watching the wall mounted scroll, though he minimised the screen resolution; rather than it filling the entire wall it was shrunk to the size of a television set from the cathode-ray era. Sometimes it still seemed too big. When he did leave the bed to wander the confines of his prison, he did so with the shambling gait of a zombie.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It was one of many homilies his father had regularly uttered. Like “Ten men play harder than eleven” or “Always back the outsider in a three horse race”. Archaic wisdom from another age—after all there were no horses anymore outside of a zoo—but sometimes there was a kernel of some greater truth ensconced within those words, but even if there hadn’t been he would still have missed them, still have missed his dad.

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time might have been the wisest of them all though, and maybe the one Jack should have paid closest attention to whilst growing up, but children rarely pay enough attention to their parents, and boys especially to their fathers, and he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the consequences when opportunity arose.

They ended up being called simply the October Riots, the third instance of spontaneous civil disobedience that year. People became almost blasé about them.

The cause was never fully explained. Maybe it was down to the undertrained constable who hit some old biddy with a plastic bullet as he tried to disperse a group of stone throwers. Certainly the rioters claimed that was the spark, but everyone had an angle; the Tories blamed the increase in numbers claiming welfare, mainly Scottish migrants, whilst Democratic Labour blamed the Tories for cutting the value of the welfare stipend. Socialist Labour, meanwhile, blamed Democratic Labour because they always did, and as usual the whole thing descended into a DL/SL slanging match which allowed the Conservatives to push another welfare cap through parliament.

None of this mattered to Jack, he’d only ventured out because of curiosity. He wanted to see what was occurring, and he’d taken any excuse to venture outside back then, he hated feeling hemmed in, loved fresh air and wide open spaces, even rain rarely deterred him.

He wasn’t completely stupid however, like a sensible tourist at Pamplona he was content to watch the action from the side-lines; he had no intention of actually running with the bulls.

He hadn’t been alone in this, around the periphery of the violence a curious, carnival atmosphere sprang up. People brought their drinks out from the pubs, street vendors relocated from other areas and started doing a roaring trade. Even when a police sweeper exploded it didn’t dent the mood, instead people treated the flames cast into the air from the detonation like an impromptu firework display.

Gradually the lines between rioters and riot-watchers blurred and, like a sailor hearing a siren song, Jack found himself tantalised into drawing closer to the rocks. One minute he was downing a bottle of beer and dancing with a cute redhead, the next he was clambering in through a smashed storefront along with several others, passing more who were already clambering out the other way, clutching stolen booty tight to their chests.

The shop had been one of the few still operating on the high-street, and the irony was that if he’d been caught up with the crowds who broke into the empty shops either side his sentence would have been lighter, because he wouldn’t have actually stolen anything. As it was when the police nabbed him he had a rolled up scroll under each arm. Irony number two was the fact that they were last year’s model, barely worth anything second hand, inferior even to his cheap Brazilian import.

The stupidity of his crime didn’t serve as any kind of mitigation, and neither did his previously spotless record. Messages needed to be sent, examples made. All the fact of this being his first offence brought him was the option of something called “nuanced incarceration”. An option he jumped at because the idea of going to an actual prison scared the hell out of him.

Idiot.

It was odd to put shoes on; he mostly went around barefoot, and though they were old and well-worn they pinched tight as new shoes now. He’d taken a shower for the first time in days, already invigorated by the thought of freedom the hot water roused him further. He ate his heartiest breakfast in weeks.

As he walked towards the door his mind wandered. Where would he go, how long could he stay free, what would the authorities do when they caught him? He already knew they would, he had no money, no identification, and wasn’t remotely suited to the life of a fugitive. To stay free would entail either becoming an actual criminal, and taking what he needed from others through guile or force, or else dropping out of society altogether. Neither option appealed. He wasn’t tough enough for a life of crime, and he liked comfort too much for the life of a downout, and even if he could bear it, downouts were becoming scarcer all the time, so he’d stand out like a sore thumb unless he ventured south to the Cornish Wastes.

And why on earth would anyone choose to do that?

No, he would be caught quickly, but his hope was that by virtue of escaping his incarceration the authorities would send him to a real prison. Odd that suddenly a life of locks and lags didn’t seem so bad.

He’d turned these thoughts over and over a thousand times before, and nothing new came of today’s cogitations, but that hadn’t been the point, he’d just wanted to distract himself from the feelings of dread that crawled over him like ants as he neared the door.

It didn’t work. Each step was a struggle. The urge to turn back, to just curl into a ball on the floor, was strong. Palpitations started. His heart began to pound and his chest seemed to tighten around it. But he fought on until he reached the door to his prison.

Except it wasn’t really the door to his prison. It was the door to his flat. The door to his prison was buried deep inside his mind.

He got as far as putting his hand on the latch, but he couldn’t bring himself to disengage the bolt. Dark terrors were pulling hard against him now: the fear was rising as panic threatened to overwhelm him.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even open the door, let alone step… outside. He knew it was irrational, but he was convinced that if he did all would be lost. The world would swallow him, he’d be engulfed within its vast emptiness like a single drop of rain within an ocean. He needed to stay safe, needed comforting walls around him.

He stepped back. The panic eased, and his heart began to calm. By the time he reached his bedroom he felt himself again, though this was no benefit. In the absence of fear there came only shame.

Nuanced Incarceration. In a time of austerity, of quadruple dip recessions, it was the latest thing. Cheaper than prison, more humane too, if you believed the hype. Jack didn’t, not anymore. What was the American term; cruel and unusual.

The particular punishment strand of Nuanced Incarceration Jack had volunteered for was called ICA; Induced Custodial Agoraphobia. Induced initially in Jack’s case by several hypnotic sessions and reinforced by regular, mandatory injections of a benzodiazepine derivative.

They said it was reversible, but somehow Jack suspected his three year tariff as a prisoner in his own home might turn out to be a life sentence.

He wanted desperately to cry, but sobbing required energy, and just getting to the front door had left him frail and weak, so he crawled under the duvet and let himself drift off to sleep, even though it wasn’t yet three in the afternoon.

In the instant before consciousness faded he took comfort in a tiny spark of defiance buried deep inside him that, despite lacking the oxygen of hope, somehow continued to burn.

Tomorrow he would escape from prison.

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Logan

Posted: March 12, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart.

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“For the last time I’m not Mel Gibson!”

The year is 2029 and James “Logan” Howlett (Jackman) is working as a chauffeur in Texas. It’s been fifteen years since any new mutants were born, and a year after a devastating event in Westchester saw many civilians and members of the X-Men killed. In constant pain, and with his healing powers failing him, Logan spends a lot of time drinking. He also buys black-market drugs from a hospital employee, but they aren’t for him. Instead they are for Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) who Logan lives with at an abandoned smelting plant across the border in Mexico.

Xavier’s powerful mind has been brought low by a degenerative brain disorder, and at times he doesn’t know who Logan is, whilst occasionally he has seizures that can create psychic storms that are dangerous to those around him. Also living with Logan and Xavier is another mutant, the albino Caliban (yes that really is Stephen Merchant).

Logan’s only goal is to save enough money that he and Xavier can buy a boat, but one day he is approached by a woman and her daughter. The woman claims she’s being hunted by her ex-boyfriend, and asks The Wolverine for help. Logan initially refuses to help, until the woman offers him money. It soon becomes apparent however that the little girl Laura (Dafne Keen) is not the woman’s daughter, and is far more than a normal child. It also becomes clear that powerful forces are hunting for her, and Logan and Xavier are forced to go on the run with her, but however far they go can the Wolverine escape old age and a history of violence?

 

And so, after playing the character for seventeen years, Hugh Jackman dons the adamantium claws for the final time having declared that, after Logan, he won’t play the character of Wolverine again. This will be his ninth X-Men movie appearance as the character, although in some instances (X-Men First Class, X-Men Apocalypse) those appearances were effectively just cameos.

For his final turn Jackman pushed for a more adult, darker film, even by all accounts reducing his fee to ensure the film could be R rated, and the result is something unlike any other film in the X-Men series to date, which is both a good and a bad thing and, laying my cards on the table, I have to say that I came out of Logan feeling somewhat how I felt coming out of Rogue One (another film that could be considered a darker take on a particular franchise) in that whilst I really liked it, it’s very detachment from the tone of the rest of the franchise prevents me genuinely loving it.

Taken in isolation though Logan is a very well put together film, although much of what makes it good comes down to the central performances; primarily Jackman, but also Stewart, with both men putting their all into the roles. As Logan Jackman essays a man who’s been fighting his whole life but who has finally reached a point where his body is beginning to fail him, a man whose only remaining drive is to protect and care for his mentor.

As Xavier Stewart plays a man whose mental facilities were always his crowning glory, now reduced to man whose mind is now as crippled as his body. It’s a wonderful performance that, for personal reasons, resonated with me a lot. He never overplays it, but always sells it right. The little flashes of light when the real Charles comes back, the confusion when the fog descends. At another time, and in another frikken universe, it’s the kind of performance worthy of a best supporting actor nomination at the very least.

Together they make an amusingly melancholic double act, and for all its swearing and violence it is the quieter moments between these two men that are the best parts of the film, and for part of the film the double act becomes a triumvirate with the addition of young Laura. Dafne Keen gives a performance above her years, although I have to say I thought she was better when she was mute, seeming more alien. The strongest section of the film is probably the middle third down to these actors.

The R/15 rating ensures the film features the F-bomb a lot, and also features some quite gratuitous violence of the kind unseen in any other X-Men film. It’s always been a slight problem with filmic Wolverine to show the man in action, after all his primary fighting style does involve giant metal claws, and here for the first time we see him in all his gory glory, but that said there’s only so much you can do to vary ‘man stabs claws into other man’s head’ so without the quieter character moments this might have been an infinitely less interesting film.

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Xaver “take the next left.” Logan “Bloody back seat mutants!”

Eschewing many of the superhero tropes, Logan is better described as a western, and shares a lot of DNA with something like Unforgiven, the man who’s led a life of violence finding some kind of redemption with one final battle. Mangold helped write the script, and it’s clear where his and Jackman’s inspirations came from. Again, in part this western setting is what sets Logan apart, but whilst original for a superhero film, Logan doesn’t deviate much from western tropes, and some of the film is painted in brush strokes that are a little too broad. Doing a homage to Shane is one thing, but Mangold overdoes it, and the grizzled gunslinger drawn back for one final battle is, has already been said, hardly original. As such large swathes of Logan are somewhat formulaic, and anyone who understands the concept of Chekov’s Gun (a gun shown in the first act will always be fired in the third) will quickly pick up on the presence of Chekov’s ‘you’ll know it when you see it.’

Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t surprise on occasion, I just wish it had deviated from the well-trodden path more often than it did. There are some genuine shocks, not least what happens to some innocent civilians, made worse by the fact that said events were completely avoidable.

Going back to Shane, of course what Shane had was a worthy adversary in Jack Palance’s sneering hired gun, and if there is a place where Logan falls down it’s in the adversaries. Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his Reavers are little more than a bland group of expendable mercenaries. The X24 mutant is more interesting, but given he doesn’t say a whole lot he’s more a force of nature than anything else, which leaves much to fall on Richard Ed Grant’s shoulders as the villainous scientist and Grant at least tries his best.

I guess the producers will say the villains aren’t that important, because the real enemy for both Logan and Xavier is time itself, and I can’t entirely argue with that.

As a film to bow out on Logan is a worthy end for the character, certainly Logan is ten times the film something like X-Men Origins: Wolverine was, and is a better film than quite a few entries in the X-Men canon. I can’t say it’s the best X-Men film, though I know many people will call it that. Dark, powerful, heartfelt, action packed and exceptionally well-acted it’s clearly the best Wolverine film and credit to Jackman for pushing for this kind of sign off.

But I can’t help wishing he’d relent and come back one more time for Deadpool 2…

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“Who are you looking at?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Wick: Chapter 2

Posted: March 4, 2017 in Film reviews
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Director: Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves

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“Need more bullets!”

 

It’s shortly after the events of the first film, and after getting his revenge, John Wick (Reeves) has only one thing on his mind; retrieving the car that was stolen from him. After battling his way through a small army of goons working for the brother/uncle of the men he killed last time out, John gets his car back, at which point he returns home to his newfound canine companion, and back to retirement.

John’s retirement lasts approximately three minutes and twenty seconds before there’s a knock at his door. It’s Santino D’Antonio (a wonderfully smarmy turn from Riccardo Scamarcio) an Italian crime lord who once did a huge favour for John, and gained his marker in return. He now wants to redeem John’s debt. John refuses, saying he’s retired.  D’Antonio isn’t one to take no for an answer however. John visits Winston (the ever-reliable Ian McShane) manager of the Continental hotel in New York. Winston reminds John that the mysterious society that John was once a part of only has two rules; the first is that you can’t kill someone within the confines of a Continental hotel, the second is that a Marker must be honoured.

With no choice John agrees to perform a job for D’Antonio, though he is dismayed when he discovers the job is assassinating D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna.

John heads for Rome, starting a chain of events that will see a huge bounty slapped on his head, a bounty that every hired gun will be after, but John Wick isn’t known as the Boogeyman for nothing. One thing is certain, an awful lot of people are going to die!

 

When early word arrived of the first John Wick, people were underwhelmed. A fairly bland title for an action film starring Keanu Reeves as an assassin who goes on a revenge spree after his dog is killed. Initially people weren’t keen. Then word of mouth suggested it might be good, and it was; very good. John Wick was a slick, noir inflected action film that turned an innocuous name into a byword for devastation. Nimbly directed by Stahelski, and featuring a role Reeves seemed born to play, what further helped the film stand out was the mythos surrounding the society of assassins that John had been part of. With their odd use of archaic gold coins, and the wonderful notion of the Continental hotel (a rest stop for hit men that, like holy ground in the Highlander films, is a place where fighting is forbidden) this shadowy organisation gifted the film a slightly surreal originality that just heightened the enjoyment.

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“I’d like to help, John, but I’m just a lovable antique dealer.”

After John Wick scored big at the box office it was clear there’d be a follow up. Obviously such a film would need to find a way to get John out of retirement once more, and it would surely have to expand the mythos surrounding the Continental and its backers.

I was really looking forward to this, but some of the initial reviews were a trifle sniffy, suggesting the film lacked the verve of the original and, worst still, was actually dull in places. I can see the critics’ point, in other hands this procession of gun battles, knife fights and Kung-Fu, might have been a trifle wearing.

Thankfully we weren’t in other hands, we’re in the hands of the team behind the original, and whilst Chapter 2 is something is a different beast, and certainly lacks the left field visceral enjoyment of the original, this is still a great film and one I liked, A LOT!

Yes getting John back out of retirement is somewhat contrived to say the least, but there is an explanation for why D’Antonio chooses now to approach John, and yes there is a lot of action here, and much as I enjoyed it the film could have easily been pared down a little—the opening fight scene is great but does go on a bit, and if nothing else the motorcycle chase right at the beginning could have been excised without affecting the film one jot. But compared to a lot of action sequels that either water down the violence and language (see the later Taken and Die Hard films) or just provide more of the same, Chapter 2 is a triumph because it expands the Wickian universe. We see another Continental Hotel in Rome (managed by the original Django himself Franco Nero), we hear about the High Table, the people in charge of the mysterious society, and we learn about the markers. There’s an argument for Chapter 2 giving us more of the same, only more so, and the number and scope of the fight scenes is increased exponentially—as is the number of deaths—but this is counterbalanced by widening the universe and by a succession of great supporting characters, which is where the first film scored highly as well.

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The ultimate enemy, hipster gunmen led by 15 year old Leonardo DiCaprio

One of the joys of the first three Die Hard films (especially 1&3) is that it featured characters who were fleshed out enough that you could easily see them starring in their own film/TV series, and it’s the same with both John Wick films. Frankly if they made a Continental TV series starring McShane, Lance Reddick as the man on front desk and Peter Serafinowicz (who threatens to steal Chapter 2 as a Sommelier whose expertise extends far beyond wine) then I’d watch the hell out of it. John Leguizamo has barely had five minutes screen time across both films, yet his character still comes alive, and I liked Cassian (rapper Common) a fellow assassin with a somewhat justified grudge against John.

When the Matrix reunion hits and Laurence Fishburne turns up the expanded universe widens yet further, and his Bowery King sees the film veer almost towards Neil Gaiman/Neverwhere territory.

On the somewhat more villainous side Claudia Gerini does a good job with limited screen time, and as D’Antonio’s mute henchperson Ares model/actress Ruby Rose is surprisingly effective given her diminutive frame.

Stahelski’s direction is assured, both in the more frenetic fight scenes, and the quieter moments, and he makes good use of both Rome and New York locations. The cinematography is top notch and the one place this films exceeds the first is in its final showdown, echoing somewhat Bond vs Scaramanga in a mirrored maze, it’s actually better than the first films somewhat more pedestrian dockside fight. Frankly I think the Broccoli’s could do worse than let Stahelski loose on a Bond film.

At the heart of it all though is Reeves, whether you think criticism of his acting is fair or not he’s perfect as John Wick, providing John Wick with a weary. laid-back rage ideal for the role, and he convinces in the fight scenes better than I suspect many men in their fifties would.

So it’s a smidgen too long, sags a little in the final third before we get to the finale, and probably could do to lose a few (dozen) killings, and to make Wick a little less like an indestructible force of nature, but these are minor quibbles. Exciting, stylish, funny, and filled with interesting characters from top to bottom this is an object lesson in making an action sequel.

Lord knows where they go with Chapter 3 though!

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“Have we met before?”