Archive for May, 2019

Directed by: Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston and Ian McShane.

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Former assassin John Wick has been declared excommunicado by the shadowy criminal organisation known as the High Table. On the run he has one hour before every hitman in the city, if not the world, is after the $14 million dollar bounty on his head, and this time his friends Winston (McShane) and Charon (Reddick) can’t help him, and nor can the Bowery King (Fishburne). With only his wits and his skills to rely on John travels from New York to Casablanca, and seeks grudging assistance from the mysterious Director (Huston) and Sofia (Berry) another former assassin who’s now running her own Continental hotel in Morocco. Meanwhile the Adjudicator (Dillon) exacts justice from those who’ve foolishly aided John in his actions.

Can John stay alive long enough to reach the one man who might be able to call the High Table off, and if he does, will he be willing the pay the price of forgiveness?

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I’ve probably said this before, but when word of the original John Wick leaked people weren’t overly excited, so the notion that we’re now into the third instalment of a franchise that seems as unstoppable as Wick himself, with likely a fourth on the way, is amusing. But then John Wick was so good there had to be a sequel, and when the world that was created was expanded in the second film, a film that ended on a cliff-hanger, a third instalment was always on the cards.

And they say films named after their characters can’t be successful.

Parabellum is an exquisitely shot, balletically choreographed action film filled with interesting characters, let down only by a slight hint of repetitiveness, because there are only so many fights you can see before they all start to blend into one another, and though the makers of the film seem endlessly inventive when it comes to devising new ways for Wick to kill people (and the stable and library fights are a delight) in the end there are too many interchangeable skirmishes with guys in back alleys here.

That said the penultimate fight (between two assailants) in the Continental hotel is so good it’s practically worth the price of admission on its own, although it does kinda dilute the final mano-a-mano.

One of the things that’s always lifted these films above the average action fare is the wonderful world of the High Table and the Continental existing parallel with our own, like a kind of exceedingly violent Harry Potter universe, with payment in gold coins, and markers exchanged for favours, and an intriguing array of people (though sometimes you have to wonder if maybe everyone’s on the High Table pay-packet). Having had the cast expanded in the last film, here we get Huston vamping it up to eleven as a Roma gang boss/artistic director at a very extreme ballet/wrestling school, and Berry as a female Wick, complete with a canine fixation and a natty talent for killing an exceptional number of people as easily as you or I might prune some roses.

In particular Berry shines here. I’ve not always been her greatest fan, and I don’t think she was a great Bond Girl, but Sofia’s so awesome that I wouldn’t be averse to a spin off.

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It’s nice to see Reddick get more to do than just stand behind a desk here, and McShane is always a joy to watch. We don’t get much of Fishburne but maybe that’ll change in 4. Dacascos’ fanboy admiration of Wick elevates what could have been a stock bad guy role, and Dillon is wonderfully aloof as the adjudicator.

Plot wise the film isn’t very inventive, with the story existing on rails; John goes to Point A so he can then go to Point B and then back to Point A, but I guess plot was never the selling point of the franchise so much as watching Keanu despatch a whole lot of bad guys. There is the addition of a lot of humour this time, even if you do feel slightly guilty for laughing as various people are horribly maimed/killed!

The choreography and cinematography are where the film really shines, although again the neon lit finale does feel a tad repetitive of the second film.

This film is still a step above the standard action fare. It’s Funny, action packed and gorgeous to look it, but I really hope they try and do something a little different in 4 rather than sticking to the formula of 2 and 3, because there is a law of diminishing returns here. More please, but also, maybe, less?

On a final note, given one of the baddies in the original film was Theon from Game of Thrones, it was amusing to see another GoT alumni show up! Always nice to see a former stalwart of British TV doing well for himself, and this is a film featuring two of them!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock

Posted: May 24, 2019 in Book reviews
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71xqeY6UPhL.jpgBy Joan Lindsay

It’s Valentine’s Day 1900, and in Australia the girls of Appleyard College, a private boarding school, undertake a picnic to Hanging Rock, a distinctive geological formation created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. During the afternoon four students wander off to climb the rocks. Eventually one of the girls returns, distraught and dishevelled. A search is conducted but no trace of the girls is found, and in addition it’s discovered that one of the teachers is missing too.

As the days pass the search becomes more and more intense, but even after one of the girls is found the mystery is no nearer to being unravelled. Did they fall and die in an ancient cave, were they carried away by nefarious individuals intent on rape and murder, or is there a more mystical explanation?

We may never know, but the disappearances hang heavy over the staff and pupils of the school, as well as a young Englishman who was almost the last person to see the girls, and tragedy will follow tragedy, because with no resolution in sight, can anyone really move on?

 

I half remember watching the film as a child (and probably being unimpressed because there was no grand reveal) but this may be a fake memory for all I know. I do know that the tale of Australian schoolgirls going missing in the outback seeped into my consciousness, especially since it became apparent that it was a true story.

Except of course it isn’t, that was just a literary trick of author Lindsay, the 1960s equivalent of Myrick and Sanchez insisting that three students really had wandered into the woods in search of the Blair Witch and vanished into thin air.

It’s a heck of a good device however, and the book is peppered with pseudo journalistic prose.

Even after reading it I’m unsure whether I liked it. In very real terms you can argue not much happens, the disappearances happen very early on and (spoiler) the mystery is never resolved (There is a missing chapter that provides far more of an explanation-more on that later). For much of the book, which is lean but not a quick read, it’s more about the effect the disappearances have on everyone else.

Still it has kind stuck with me. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of the prose, and a fascination with nature that’s a little unsettling, and Lindsay does sprinkle tiny clues here and there. The fact that watches stop working near to the rock formation, the fact that the missing teacher, Miss McCraw, is a mathematician obsessed with finding short cuts, a death later on that its never clear whether is murder or suicide, and the sense of dread hanging over the school, as if everyone is somehow cursed.

Lindsay is prone to waffle at times, and though it becomes clearer later on, initially it’s difficult to determine who various people are, despite a list of characters at the start of the kind you might find in a play, and the fact that two of the missing girls are Miranda and Marion doesn’t help.

Lindsay does catch you off guard, in particular the return of the one girl who’s found to school does not go remotely as I’d have imagined.

A book that’s as intriguing as it is infuriating.

* * *

Ok, now a few spoilery bits

The missing chapter, which I’ve only read a precis of, seems to make it abundantly clear that the girls travel through some kind of time warp, possibly even transforming into animals as they go (very aboriginal). Still this leaves questions. The girls meet a woman they don’t recognise but it must obviously be Miss McCraw, except she doesn’t recognise them and vice versa, could it be that she’s been in this other world far longer? Enough time to lose her mind and become unrecognisable to the girls? And where does this leave Irma, the girl who’s found, how come she isn’t discovered during the initial search? Was she caught up in some other time, and spat back out later?

I can see why her editor suggested excising the chapter, the best mystery is one that isn’t explained after all.

A couple of other points. First is Mike’s failed romance with Irma. The book suggests he steps away from her because it’s Miranda he was drawn to (as it seems is everyone) and in many respects he’s clearly guilt-ridden for feeling that he rescued the wrong girl, but I wonder if Lindsay had more at play here. Mike’s friendship with his uncle’s coachman, Albert, is quite intense, and remember, though Mike heads off to the Northern territories, he’s quite insistent that he wants Albert to go with him, so are they merely friends, or something more, something neither man could admit to?

There’s certainly a homoerotic undercurrent at work in the book, as I’ve said everyone seems enraptured by Miranda, and again this seems to go beyond friendship in the case of some of the girls.

Finally there’s the mystery of what happens to Sara, the orphan Mrs Appleyard, who’s never presented as anything but a nasty piece of work, detests. At first I thought Mrs Appleyard killed her, but in hindsight I realise we’re supposed to realise Sara killed herself, which explains why Mrs Appleyard was searching her room, she was looking for the suicide note.

Mrs Appleyard does at least get her comeuppance, making her way to the Hanging Rock and hurling herself from its heights. I wonder though, was her intention suicide, or was she hoping to escape her many problems by somehow following the girls and Miss McCraw to wherever, or whenever, they ended up?

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Posted: May 21, 2019 in James Bond
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“You can watch it all on TV, every Bank Holiday Monday.”

So here we are with the penultimate (official) Connery Bond film. It’s been two years since Thunderball, and SPECTRE have graduated from stealing nuclear bombs to stealing entire spaceships as they plot to create war between the USA and the Soviet Union. Luckily the British believe someone else is to blame, and suspect that someone is in Japan. After faking 007’s death to give him room to manoeuvre, Bond’s despatched to Japan, a country where men come first, and a film Mike Myers got far too many jokes out of…

There was a time when, if asked about my favourite Connery film, I might actually have said this one. In hindsight I can see why; hollowed out volcanos, a great Blofeld, Little Nellie, spaceships! It’s just that watching it now its flaws are all too clear. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable Bond film, it just means it’s one you’re better off not thinking about in too much detail.

Really it’s the plotting that lets it down. Let’s set aside for a moment the notion that somehow war between America and the Soviets would leave China and the rest of the world untouched, set aside how rockets can take off without anyone noticing, especially given that Bond seems to be in the vicinity around the time of one launch. The big question is, why go to the trouble of building a spaceship that eats other spaceships, why not just blow the other craft up? It’s not like anyone is going up there to search for clues.

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There are other annoyances, why for instance does Helga Brandt, who let’s not forget has Bond tied up and at her mercy, release him, just so they can then get in a plane that she can bail out of to leave him to die? It makes zero sense. It isn’t like they’re that worried about linking Bond with Osato Industries. I mean, a car full of goons tries to perforate 007 immediately after he walks out of the company’s headquarters. Couldn’t they at least wait for him to walk around the corner?

It feels almost blasphemous to say this, but the blame must surely lie with the screenwriter, the late, great Roald Dahl.

nellieGaping plot holes wider than the mouth of a volcano aside, there are some great set pieces here. Bond’s ‘death’ and funeral are great, as is his meeting with M aboard the submarine. It’s great to see Bond in navel uniform (and special mention to how gorgeous Lois Maxwell looks in uniform too). Bond’s fight atop the buildings of Kobe docks is wonderfully staged, and shot, especially the aerial filming. It does seem like following on from Thunderball being the film with all the scuba divers, You Only Live Twice is the film with all the helicopters! From Tanaka’s magnet carrying chopper (mad but fun) to Little Nellie and Bond’s dogfight with four bigshots, and then there’s the helicopter heading in and out of the volcano. Throw in the aerial filming and the producers must have got a job lot!

Let’s talk more about the dogfight. Little Nellie is wonderful, and it’s nice to see Bond return a vehicle in one piece (mostly) for once. By modern standards it might be a bit static, but I still love it.

And no discussion of set pieces would be complete without mention of Tanaka’s ninja attack! The modern Bond films seem to have dispensed with the small war finale, which is a shame, and this one is a doozy, made all the better by the set Ken Adam and his team put together. No CGI back then so that’s a hell of a set!

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Cast wise You Only Live Twice does well in some departments, and poorly in others. Pleasence is wonderful as Blofeld (and for me still the definitive Ernst Stavro) but his reveal is late on in the film, shame we didn’t get more of him. Still it is delicious when he tells the Chinese agent who accuses him is extortion that “Extortion is my business.” I mean seriously guys, it’s the E in the organisation’s name! As an aside on SPECTRE working practices, yet again people don’t get much of a warning, straight to the piranha tank for you, Miss Brandt!

As Tiger, Tetsurō Tamba is great, recalling Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love.

176On the Bond girl front things aren’t so strong. Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki is good (and I love the way she refers to Bond as Zero-Zero) aside from the fact that she curiously throws herself at Bond with no preamble, it’s like we were missing some scenes that suggested more of a connection between them. Still, she’s capable and her acting isn’t bad. Shame she gets murdered. Double shame that Connery can’t be arsed to get that cut up about it. I’m so glad he isn’t around for the next film.

Aki’s replacement as Bond girl is Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki (yes that’s her name!) who’s something of a wet fish if you ask me, not that she’s given much to work with. That leaves Karin Dor as Brandt. It’s clear what the producers were going for; if a villainous European redhead had proven so successful last time out, why reinvent the wheel. Oh dear. Dor does her best, but sadly Brandt isn’t a patch on Fiona Volpe.

And then there’s Connery. You can tell he’s fed up by now, he just doesn’t seem to be putting the effort in, though he isn’t helped by the script. Expressing practically no emotion at the death of Aki is unforgivable though. I’m not suggesting he break down in floods of tears, but he barely waits a minute before talking to Tiger about his upcoming wedding!

Ah the wedding, which brings us (not so) neatly onto a discussion of sexism and racism. Women don’t get treated especially well here, and did Tiger really just refer to a woman as sexiful? On the plus side Bond doesn’t lie on top of anyone till she gives in or blackmails anyone into sex so maybe that’s an improvement.

Culturally in many ways the film isn’t as bad as you might imagine. The wedding, and Sumo scenes are both treated with some semblance of respect, and on the whole Japan isn’t viewed as being backward and Tiger and his people are portrayed as smart and competent. It’s just shame that we then get Bond’s transformation into a Japanese man, which is about as convincing as Gary Johnston’s transformation into an Arab in Team America. Bond looks less like a Japanese fisherman than a guy off to infiltrate the Romulan Empire, he just needs pointed ears.

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John Barry’s score is great, mixing western and eastern themes, though Nancy Sinatra’s title track is a tad forgettable. The space effects are nicely done and still hold up today, and kudos for perhaps one of the grisliest deaths in the franchise as an astronaut is left to die alone in orbit; shudder. Talking of astronauts, I wonder what did happen to those two cosmonauts and the other American astronaut? Also what was Bond going to do if he had been able to get into the rocket? You get the feeling he hadn’t thought this through. Oh well, guess some other 007 will have to be the first (and only) Bond in space!

On the ‘not them again front’, Burt Kwok is back, and spot Ed Straker and Scott Tracy (Ed Bishop and the recently departed Shane Rimmer, both of whom turned up in multiple Bond films) and if you look closely one of the Russian mission control guys is a certain German Colonel from Allo Allo.

Perhaps the best WTF is this though. Remember the girl who promises Bond a very special duck in the pre title sequence, well the actress, Tsai Chin, is one of the poker players in Casino Royale!

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There’s a lot to enjoy in YOLT, but more care should have been taken with the story. YOLT seems a curious book to try and adapt given it follows on directly from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (apparently OHMSS was planed to be the next film after Thunderball but they had trouble finding a snowy setting so decided to squeeze another one in first. As I’ve already said, I’m glad about this because I firmly believe a Connery version of OHMSS would have been nowhere near as affecting as the one we’ve got.)

Still, Bond in uniform, Little Nellie, the focus on Japan, Blofeld’s reveal, space rockets, and did I mention a fricken hollowed out volcano? This is fun, it’s just not a great film in the Bond pantheon.

Anyway James Bond will return, but he might look a trifle different…

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Thunderball (1965)

Posted: May 3, 2019 in James Bond
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And we’re onto the fourth Bond film, hurrah! I possibly need to pick the pace up a little, still although a lot has been announced about Bond #25, it still doesn’t have a title, so I figure I still have quite a bit of time!

Maybe I was a bit lax because I wasn’t looking forward to this one. Oh, sure, there was a time when I loved it (a long time ago) but the last couple of times I’d seen it I remember being underwhelmed. So, has my opinion changed?

Irritatingly, yes and no. There’s actually a lot to like here, and yet the whole never quite lives up to the sum of its parts for some reason.

SPECTRE steal two nuclear bombs and threaten to blow up a British or American city unless the UK government pay £100 million (note to Mike Myers, see that joke really wasn’t even funny now was it? Because even in 1965 Dr Evil would have asked for more than one million dollars.) All 00 agents are assigned to find the bombs and Bond deftly avoids a posting to Canada (seriously, M?) by suggesting his time might be better spent chasing young women in the Bahamas, and as crazy as it sounds, he’s actually right!

After a drab pre title sequence when Bond punches out a man dressed as a woman (yes, ok Myers you can have that one) the film picks up the pace. It’s always nice to see 007 doing some detective work, and whilst recuperating at a health spa he becomes rightly suspicious of Count Lippe and a mysteriously bandaged patient. Sure, Bond’s investigations are a tad clunky, and I don’t think either he or Lippe do well in the undercover stakes, but it is always nice to see 007 using his brains.

The theft of the atom bombs is superb, from the reveal that poor old Major Derval has been copied, to Angelo’s takeover and crash landing of the plane underwater, closely followed by Angelo paying the price for being a greedy so and so, in a scene that still gives me the shivers.

And what’s 007 doing while the Vulcan’s being nicked? Oh, just blackmailing a woman into sex by threatening to get her the sack, you know, the usual…ok, you could argue that Patricia just assumes he could get her the sack, but it isn’t like James disabuses her of this notion. Minus marks, 007, must try harder.

largo_gunHaving seen the dead Derval, Bond’s lead is his sister Domino who’s the mistress (any pretence of ward is quickly dispensed with) of Emilio Largo, a man with an eyepatch and a liking for white dinner jackets who’s also known as Number 2 in SPECTRE (ok Myers, but this really is the last one!). Adolfo Celi is a forceful and sadistic presence, very different from Goldfinger, even if his eyepatch screams villain. He’s dubbed (as actors so often were in these early Bond films) because although his English was very good, his accent was, apparently a trifle thick.

As Domino, Claudine Auger is a so-so Bond girl, pretty but somewhat vapid for the most part, although fair play, she does get a bit of agency in the end by being the one to off Largo, but not a great Bond girl.

Unlike the film’s femme fatale. As Fiona Volpe, Luciana Paluzzi is amazing. Gorgeous, vicious, smart, ruthless, commanding and with a swagger many male villains would give their prosthetic claws for. From killing Count Lippe (seriously, does no one in SPECTRE ever just get a warning? See the guy electrocuted in his chair earlier) to literally driving Bond to distraction, she has agency in abundance, and for perhaps the first time a woman calls 007 out on the preposterousness of his reputation. “Bond, James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.” Not that Fiona switches sides after a shag, no siree, this girl, this woman, is not for turning, and whether that quote is a sly did at Pussy or not, arguably Fiona Volpe is the best Bond girl so far. Even if she does end up dying in 007’s arms.

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Bond has a fair few gadgets here, even if many of them are shoehorned into the pre-title sequence. The jet pack probably looked amazing at the time but now seems ridiculous, though it’s nice to see the tricked out DB5 getting another airing. Other than this Bond’s got a mini rebreather which comes in handy more than once (a pleasant rarity for a Bond film), a Geiger counter in a watch and a camera, an underwater jet pack and a tracking device he has to swallow. It’s always fun to see Q out in the field and here’s the first occurrence. We get our third Felix into the bargain as well, though I quite like Rik Van Nutter’s dishevelled take on the role, and he at least looks more like Jack Lord than the last guy!

tb-beach-pink1-e1426555103685Let’s talk Connery though, is it me or does he seem to be phoning it in a little more? Maybe not all the time, but he definitely doesn’t quite have the presence he’s had before, though there are some nice scenes, and his “Wait till you see my teeth” line is wonderfully delivered. I suppose we can’t blame him for getting a trifle tired of the role, this was his fourth Bond film in as many years (remember that Daniel Craig will end up with a six-year break between films!) At least he’ll get a bit of a breather before the next film in the series.

As stated, the theft of the Vulcan is fantastic, and the 00 briefing scene is wonderfully staged as well, as is Bond hiding out in the carnival. So why does Thunderball leave me a little cold?

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Maybe it’s the action scenes, most specifically the underwater action scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I can tell this was a big deal back in 1965, and the underwater filming is clearly impressive, except it feels like the producers thought it was so impressive that we needed to see as much of it as possible! Connery seems to spend a third of the film underwater, and whilst the final underwater battle starts well, it doesn’t half go on a bit. Really, once you’ve seen one guy get harpooned underwater you’ve seen them all, and the fact they’re underwater ensures everyone seems to be moving slowly, all of which combines to turn what should be a tense and exciting battle into something that just drags.

Perhaps to compensate, once Bond and Largo are fighting it out on the boat, the camera is speeded up, presumably to add to the tension, though it just seems plain silly. The pick up via sky hook equipped plane s a wonderfully surreal final shot however (and it’s a real thing).

On a final note it’s interesting that we get Tom Jones singing Thunderball rather than Shirley Bassey’s Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang when the producers baulked at not having the title of the film in the song lyrics. Quick fun fact, Jones supposedly held that final note so long he fainted!

One last fun fact, Martine Beswick makes her second appearance in a Bond film having been one of the gypsy gals in From Russia With Love.

Do I hate Thunderball? No, because there’s much to like here, notably the Vulcan scenes and every second Fiona Volpe’s on screen, and in small doses the underwater stuff is genuinely impressive, I just can’t help feeling this is a film that could have easily lost five or ten minutes in the editing room and been better for it. Decent enough but probably the weakest in the franchise so far.

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