Archive for April, 2017

Fast & Furious 8

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by  F. Gary Gray. Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron.

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Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez) are on honeymoon in Cuba. Of course, this being a Fast & Furious film said honeymoon entails a road race around Havana in an exploding car but, you know, never let it be said Dom doesn’t understand the concept of romance…

Everything is hunky-dory, until Dom is approached by a mysterious cyberhacker named Cypher (Theron) who wants him to come work for her. Dom refuses, but Cypher shows him a photo and suggests he changes his mind.

Meanwhile Secret Service agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) has been given an assignment to steal an Electromagnetic pulse device from a terrorist group in Berlin. It’s an off the books job and if he’s caught the American government will disavow him and he’ll end up in prison. Hobbs quickly recruits Dom and the rest of his team/family.

In Berlin things don’t go to plan. Suddenly Dom’s switched sides, the team are on the run, and Hobbs is banged up in prison sharing a cell block with his old adversary Deckard Shaw (Statham).

But, as the true extent of Cypher’s plan becomes clear, secretive intelligence guru Mr Nobody (the always excellent Kurt Russell) decides Hobbs and the team are the only ones who can stop Cypher and Dom… but given they’re a man down he suggests a new recruit that nobody is particularly happy about.

As the countdown to Armageddon draws closer, the team must battle incredible (some might say ludicrous) odds in order to stop Cypher. But just what has made Dom betray his family?

 

It’s hard to remember that when this franchise started it was a down and dirty, not to mention grounded, series. When the fifth instalment semi-rebooted the franchise back in 2011 a scene involving fast cars dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio suggested the franchise had left it’s roots well and truly behind and embraced a blockbuster future.

Fast & Furious 8 makes Fast Five look like a Mike Leigh film.

Be under no illusions if you go see this. It’s utterly preposterous. People and cars do things that people and cars really can’t ever do. The soundtrack is dialled up to eleven but it has to be to compete with the revving engines, gunfire and explosions which are its near constant companions, and you’ll rarely find a film more loaded with testosterone than this outside of the 1980s action movie heyday.

This film is not remotely subtle.

This film is also fantastically enjoyable. From its Cuban set piece preamble to its ice floe denouement this film doesn’t let up for a minute; fast cars, pretty girls, bald handsome men, guns, fights, jokes…it’s like a two and a half hour roller coaster that somehow never seems to need to climb before it hits you with another drop.

Yes the plot is ropey, and though Theron exudes menace her characterisation is wafer thin and it’s hard to decide just what she wants. Shaw isn’t the first bad guy to turn anti-hero but it is only a film ago that he wanted to kill everyone (and only two films ago that he succeeded in killing one of the group) but if this seems a misstep it’s not, thanks in no small part to Statham’s ebullient charm, and make no mistake the Stath threatens to steal the whole damn movie at times, and he has the best set piece in the film involving a…well, that’d be telling. Suffice to say that with his blend of charisma, comic timing and fighting skills it’s amazing he doesn’t have an action franchise all to himself, and if the rumours about a Shaw/Hobbs spin off are correct I will most assuredly buy that for a dollar.

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Jason and Dwayne’s game of Rock, Paper, Scissors got a little out of hand.

Talking of Hobbs, Johnson rarely gives a poor performance, and like Statham has so much natural charm it’d be irritating if only he wasn’t so damn charming. Whilst he’s the beating heart of the franchise it has to be said that Diesel pales somewhat in comparison to his co-stars. He still has a natural swagger, but he’s showing his age somewhat, and he’s never going to win an Oscar, and he spends most of the film looking conflicted (or trying to). There’s also a touch of narcissistic wish fulfilment going on, given his character can seemingly outwit all of the others put together.

Rodriguez is reliable as ever, and for a film that does tend to focus on blokes—and spends perhaps a trifle too long at the start leering at women’s bottoms—she more than holds her own. Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris are another double act who could probably pull off their own spin off, and newcomer Scott (you might know his dad) Eastwood impresses as the newbie and semi-replacement for the deceased Paul Walker. Really the only dud is Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel  who never remotely convinces as a computer hacker, though her GoT co-star Kristofer Hivju does make for an impressive heavy.

Special mention for Helen Mirren’s EastEnders audition as well…

Yes it’s dumb, yes it has too much cgi and yes it’s hard to know where the hell they go from here (though I seem to recall saying the same after 7) but for all its flaws it’s the kind of film most other blockbusters should pay attention to, well paced and, most of all, enjoyable. I’m not saying I want the Bond franchise to go all Fast & Furious, but they could do worse than take a few of the less ridiculous leaves out of its book when it comes to pacing and set pieces.

Utterly stupid. Utterly enjoyable.

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Both Charlize and Vin wondered who’d farted?

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Raw

Posted: April 14, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

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And this is what happens when you stick Lego up your nose.

Justine (Marillier) is on her way to college to train as a vet. Her parents attended the same college, and her older sister Alexia (Rumpf) is already partway through her studies there. Justine and Alexia were raised as vegetarians by their parents, but when Justine arrives she finds that an intense hazing ritual awaits all new students, or rookies as they’re known, and part of this involves the initiates having to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, but Alexia persuades her to do it.

Soon after Justine begins to feel unwell, she develops a rash which she presumes is an allergic reaction to eating meat. A little while later and she starts to develop an unusual craving…

 

Up until about a week ago I had no idea this film existed, and in a world of franchise blockbusters it’s a pleasant surprise that this did actually make it to my local multiplex given its a/subtitled and b/is a female skewed cannibal film.

Although the first thing to make clear is that ‘French cannibal film’ really doesn’t do this justice. Exceptionally well directed its truly mesmerising to watch, and acting wise both Marillier and Rumpf are superb. In particular Marillier gives one heck of a performance, switching from virginal and timid to sexy and confident and then back again, and the shifts in her personality never seen forced.

Setting aside the more lurid elements of the film, this is a story about finding your place in the world, about growing up and discovering just what kind of person you want to be. It’s about those first painful days at university when you’re alone, trying to make new friends and trying not to miss home. It’s about being out of your comfort zone, about exploring your sexuality and about fitting in, or choosing not to fit in.

The easiest point of reference I can make to this film is the Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps (which if you haven’t seen you should really see!) which again featured sisters coming of age, and again featured appetites that are, shall we say not the norm. Just imagine Ginger Snaps without the werewolves, which is something of a recurring motif for Raw, because in many ways it’s a zombie film that features no zombies, a vampire film sans bloodsuckers.

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The first rule of Bite Club is, you don’t talk about Bite Club!

Which isn’t to suggest Raw is a strictly speaking a horror film, although obviously in many ways it is, but like the best horror films it’s more than just a scary movie, and it has something to say. It’s exceptionally dark, evocative, disturbing, sexy, funny, and shocking. At times you want to look away, not because something is happening on screen, but because of what you imagine could happen at any moment. It’s an unsettling film because you’re always on edge, and in part this is why it’s so enthralling (along with the performances).

Rumours abound that, much like the Exorcist or Robocop when they first came out, people were fainting/vomiting in the aisles. I can’t say I ever quite felt like doing either, but at times this is a wince inducing film, and not always in the moments you might imagine. The bit where Justine scratches her rash is one of the most grimace inducing bits of the film, as is a waxing scene. There’s disturbing imagery at play outside of the more horrific elements. The scene with students crawling through an underground carpark is genuinely unsettling, and with this being a veterinary school there are a lot of scenes featuring animals which again put you on edge without you knowing why.

If it has a flaw I’d say it was a touch impenetrable at first, it did take me a little while to get into it, but that might be more to do with me acclimatising to the subtitles rather than anything the film does or doesn’t do. Suffice to say that after a while I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, which given what was often happening on screen says a lot for how enthralling it is.

Proving yet again (if it even needed proving) that women can make films that are every bit as unsettling (if not more so) as blokes, this is a treat. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack too.

It isn’t a film for everyone, but I really, really liked it. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a trifle peckish all of a sudden…

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It’s going to take more than Persil to get these stains out…

By Harry Harrison

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Arch criminal turned ace secret agent, ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz is taking some well-earned R&R. Of course for the Stainless Steel Rat this involves robbing a series of banks. He’s soon reeled in by Inskipp, the head of the Special Corps, who Jim now reluctantly works for. The Corps has something big to contend with. In the future invasion of another world should be impossible, but somehow the inhabitants of the planet Cliaand have managed to invade multiple planets with ease, and Inskipp wants to know how.

Recently (and somewhat reluctantly) married, Jim leaves his heavily pregnant wife, Angelica (one of the few people are smart and deadly as him) behind and heads for Cliaand, but with no gadgets and only his wits to rely on, and with an entire planet full of soldiers to thwart, has the Stainless Steel Rat finally bitten off more than he can chew?

And so my (very slow) re-read of the Stainless Steel Rat books reaches the second novel. There’s actually quite a gap between them, given than Harrison published this around 1970 and the first book (which I reviewed here) came out almost a decade before.

Very little has changed in the intervening time, and much like the first book this is a slender volume very much in the pulp space opera mould. Again it’s a product of its time, although in fairness Harrison does give his female characters a degree of agency (if anything Angelica is smarter and much more ruthless than Jim, he is the more cunning however) and although painted with very broad brushstrokes, he does provide a matriarchal society of Amazonian women to help Jim out.

As before this is a lightweight, non-too serious adventure.  diGriz is smarter than any opponent, so even when he’s captured you know he won’t stay incarcerated for long. That said the Grey Men he finds himself up again are somewhat creepy, and this book does feature a truly shocking event that, when it happened, made me sit up and take notice because I didn’t remotely see it coming. Suffice to say it was a trifle Game of Thrones!

As science fiction goes this is about as hard as brie, and the era it was written in makes for some anachronistic aspects of a so called future society at times. But it’s amusing, well-paced, and if the use of smoke bombs becomes a trifle repetitive, don’t worry there’s usually a surprise or two waiting around the corner.

Something of an admission however, is it wrong that I find Jim’s criminal escapades just a trifle more exciting than his life as an intergalactic James Bond?

At the current rate set your alarms for a review of book three coming sometime in 2019…

Directed by Rupert Sanders. Starring Scarlett Johansson, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche and Michael Pitt.

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Cue bionic woman theme tune…

It is the near future and the majority of humans have been enhanced with cybernetics. The leading cybernetic company is Hanka Robotics, and they have taken such augmentation one step further by placing the brain of a human inside a completely mechanical body, or shell. The test subject is a young woman who is apparently the sole survivor of a terrorist attack. With little memory of her life before the new hybrid (Johansson) is renamed Mira Killian and assigned to Section 9, an anti-terrorism organisation led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi).

A year after her rebirth Killian is now a Major in Section 9 and a trusted, if sometimes unpredictable, officer. She has been experiencing glitches however, flashbacks from her previous life. Dr Ouelet (Binoche) one of the team who created the Major, assures Killian that these are nothing to worry about, and with the Major’s consent she deletes them.

When a mysterious hacker known as Kuze (Pitt) begins killing Hanka scientists Major and her partner Batou (Asbæk) begin an investigation, but the closer Major gets to Kuze, the more and more Major learns about her past life, and realises that not everything she was told was true…

 

The first thing to say about Ghost in the Shell is that I’ve never seen the original, so I have no Amine axe to grind. The second thing to say is that the film looks gorgeous, but I’ll come on to that later.

As I said, never read the Manga or seen any of the Anime but one can only hope it’s better than this. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a terrible film, it’s just very forgettable.

I don’t want to get into the issues around whitewashing, about why Hollywood felt this needed Scarlett Johansson rather than a Japanese actress, frankly I’m not sure that would have made it any better as the problems are in the script and realisation rather than in the performances, which vary from very good to a trifle average but are never awful.

Johansson is a good actress who’s proven before (Under the Skin, Lucy) that she can convince as someone who’s not quite human (or in the case of Under the Skin someone who’s note remotely human!) I think she’s acted better than she does here, but I do think the material she had to work with didn’t help. The main problem with Ghost in the Shell, and it seems odd to say this given the increasing prevalence of the internet, of hacking and technological enhancements, is that it feels dated. We might be on the verge of a real-life cyberpunk world, but cyberpunk films have been around for quite some time now, and one can’t shake the feeling that this might have played better in the nineties. As it is it feels derivative of things like The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days etc. Now you could argue a lot of those earlier cyberpunk films were themselves derivative of Japanese Manga and Anime, but that’s irrelevant when this film just brings nothing new, nothing interesting to the table.

Watching it you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen it done before, and done better. Want a better future city detective story, watch Blade Runner, want a better examination of what it means to be human/sentient, watch Ex Machina or Under the Skin, want a better action film, well watch quite a few things, several of them this year alone.

The storyline is pedestrian and the film provides zero surprises, if you haven’t figured out what’s going on inside the first ten minutes you need to see more films. Of course, plenty of films can make a predictable storyline work, and not every film needs twists and reveals, but likely those films would have had something else to say. For a film about a woman whose brain is stuck in a robot body the film doesn’t have enough to say about the nature of humanity. It tries, but for the most part attempts at addressing this are superficial at best, or speedily got past; classic example is when Major wakes up for the first time and Dr Ouelet just flat out tells her. “Hi there was an accident but we saved your brain and stuck it in a metal shell.” Way to break it to her gently!

Which is another thing, just how many times the words “Ghost” and “Shell” are used. Seriously, we get it Hollywood, no need to whack us over the head every ten minutes.

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Batou’s laser eye surgery wasn’t what he was expecting!

On the plus side the cast is good. Johansson imbues the role with a curiously appropriate physicality that takes a little getting used to, but Major isn’t remotely Black Widow. Asbæk makes a great foil for her, and their partnership is one of the best things about the film, and whilst he doesn’t do a whole lot, Beat Takeshi has an iconic cool about him, as if Dirty Harry got old and became the police chief.

Oh yes, and the film looks gorgeous. The cityscapes are magnificent and the costume and character designs are exceptional (you can see where the time and money went, and it wasn’t on the script) but even here the film is flawed. The city never feels real, it certainly doesn’t have that lived-in look that LA had in Blade Runner, and for a sprawling metropolis I kept wondering where all the people were? No street scene seems to have more than a handful of extras and the roads seem surprisingly clear. You could say the same about Blade Runner but at least there’s a reason for that, in that most people have buggered off off-world.

In the end this film is well named, because it’s a beautiful shell that, sadly, only contains the ghost of anything interesting.

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“What did you just say? How very dare you!”