Saturday 28 March 2015


AKA The Terrorists

(Caspar Wrede, 1974)

Ransom wastes Sean Connery. Easily the greatest leading man of his generation, Connery was often misused in the decades between leaving the James Bond franchise and a sort of rebirth as an elder statesman megastar. Only Sidney Lumet seemed to understand his acting ability, and his outsized charisma and macho presence were really only truly capitalised upon by the series of brilliant historical adventures he made in the 1970s. Alongside those he starred in some odd misfires and oddities - thrillers and dramas of questionable value, of which Ransom is a prime example.
Following the machinations and politics around the handling of a dual hostage and hijacking situation in the nation of "Scandinavia" (which appears to be Norway), Connery plays the security chief of the nation who finds himself at odds with his own and the British Government about how to deal with the terrorists involved. Ian McShane plays one, though he, like everyone else, like Connery, has barely any character to speak of.
Finnish director Wrede is competent but his staging and style are inarguably dull; despite cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist and a score by the equally legendary Jerry Goldsmith, Ransom rarely feels like a movie, instead carrying a lingering whiff of television with it. The plot sees Connery arrange various plans to end the twin sieges, and even the action scenes feel flat, though there are a few moments of tension. The best thing here is the location work - wintry Norwegian locations are instantly atmospheric, and even the cynically-appropriated library material of bombing in '70s Britain adds to the feel of Europe during a low, dirty decade. Connery is always watchable, but his character, Nils Tahlvik, is a gruff military man who seems more irritated by the situation in which he finds himself than he is emotionally torn. The actor is capable of so much more than this film.

Sunday 22 March 2015


(Jaume Collet-Serra, 2015)

Neeson has an obvious advantage over all of his current competitors for the title of King of Action Movies: he can really act. When the Rock or Vin Diesel or Jason Statham turns in a performance with any depth or emotion, we are surprised that they've managed that "Any". With Neeson, it's expected.
His only real current rival in that area is Keanu Reeves, who has added a surprising amount of melancholy and gravity to his persona as age has taken hold.
But Neeson has always been melancholy - he wears it like a cloak, swishing in his massive wake - its just that these days his action parts seem tailor-made for his presence. In Run All Night he plays an ageing, useless hit man for the Irish mob in New York, Jimmy Conlon. Apparently kept around out of sentimentality by mob boss Sean Maguire (Ed Harris, adding to his list of Irish mobsters), a childhood friend, Jimmy is a broke alcoholic , crippled by memories of all the people he has murdered. A convoluted first act sets up a situation whereby Jimmy ends up killing Sean's reckless gangster son in order to protect his own, civilian boy Michael (Joel Kinnaman), setting the two of them off on a night of chase and survival through New York as Sean sets hit men and flunkies after them. Also in on the hunt are the NYPD, though the detective who has been after Jimmy for decades (Vincent D'onofrio) may be their only hope of survival.
Collet-Serra is one of the more talented craftsmen working in mainstream American cinema right now and his classy, slick touch makes Run All Night one of the better Neeson actioners of the last few years. If the action scenes are somewhat underwhelming - and the low-key, small scale, determinedly local feel to the whole thing may even explain that to some extent - then the fine work by a great cast is more than enough to compensate. Crucially, Neeson is actor enough to rise to the task of playing opposite the likes of Harris and D'Onofrio, and his scenes with the former, particularly, lend this film an oddly poetic sense of longtime male friendships in the twilight years.
That's not to criticise the action scenes - a brutal, to-the-death fight between Neeson and Holt McCallany in a public toilet is a highlight, closely followed by a lengthy car-chase that avoids most of the cliches of that convention - rather to emphasise that the elements that really set Run All Night apart are the gritty feel it has for New York and the character acting throughout.
Probably the weakest element is the one that feels most like it has come from a different sort of genre film - Common as a preppy assassin Price, sporting a trench-coat and a laser-sighting on his pistol.
But generally Run All Night works splendidly; it is an unusually emotional, visceral  mix of crime, thriller and action movies, and it uses Liam Neeson about as well as any recent film has.

Tuesday 10 March 2015


(Neill Blomkamp, 2015)

Blomkamp has nothing to say about anything. Three movies in, and he has included themes and references in his movies that are consistently interesting and topical - the gap between rich and poor, racism, violence in law and order, crime, what constitutes consciousness, corporate influence - and yet he has never really investigated any of them in any meaningful way. They're there. And that's it.
What he seems really interested in is technology. That and ultra-violence. Preferably a combination of the two.
Chappie follows the Blomkamp formula in that it includes many elements reminiscent of his first 2 films, only it is less successful than either. Set in a very near future Johannesburg (lacking a single major black character, let it be noted) where the police are using robot "Scout" officers to deal with the overwhelming rate of violent crime, Chappie is really the story of Dev Patel, the engineer creator of the Scouts, who decides to repurpose a damaged unit in order to test out his new AI program. Only this test coincides with his own kidnapping at the hands of lowlife small-timers Ninja and Yolanda (the members of Die Antwoord) who want him to hit the off switch on all the scouts so that they can pull off a massive heist, and pay back their crimelord boss Rhino. When the criminals spot Chappie, awoken into the world like a baby, all blank slate innocence-cum-stupidity and clumsiness, Ninja immediately spots a way to exploit his abilities for financial gain, while Yolanda takes to motherhood like a natural, bonding with her baby instantly.
Complicating this is Hugh Jackman's dangerous rugby playing, gun-toting, ex-soldier Christian engineer, envious of Patel's success and just itching to be allowed test his massive Robocop ED 209 rip-off, "the Moose". When all these interests converge for the climax is when Blomkamp seems at his most comfortable. Mayhem, lots of firepower, blood and guts and the apocalyptic destruction of a warehouse.
Blomkamp loves lingering on the damage hardware can do to the human body, and he shoots action with a real feel for the visceral impact of combat. Combine these traits with a love of video-game tropes (lots of HDU shots and POV 1st person shooter cutaways) and a distinctive nose for a grungey cyberpunk tech fetish, and what you have here is nine tenths an almost generic Blomkamp film.
That other tenth is filled by Chappie himself, a beautifully seamless cgi creation, sensitively, and at times hilariously voiced by Sharlito Copley. Chappie has an actual arc here, losing his innocence before finding something new to replace it, and much of the film's humour comes from watching him act like a gangster, mangle swearwords and misinterpret simple instructions.
The cast are fine, the wooden Die Antwoord aside. Jackman is having a rare old time as this bad guy, all mullet and shorts, and Dev Patel is believably geeky and terrified when called to do so.
What it's really missing, though, especially in the draggy middle section, is a point, a reason to exist.

Sunday 1 March 2015


(David Robert Mitchell, 2014)

The American suburbs. Daytime. Synthesisers.
Why this particular combination of elements should be so creepy I have no idea, but it undeniably is. And it's just the starting point for David Robert Mitchell's chilling It Follows.
The story follows Jay (Maika Monroe, excellent), a teen in the Northern suburbs of Detroit. Early on, she sleeps with a guy, and afterwards, he changes instantly. Not just being distant and never calling her; no - he drugs her and ties her to a wheelchair, the better to demonstrate exactly what he means to tell her. He tells her that he has passed something onto her, a curse of sorts. It means that she is now being followed by something undefinable, a shape-shifting creature which is always walking directly towards her, wherever she is, wherever it is. It never runs and it never stops. And if it touches her, she is dead. Sometimes it will take the form of a perfect stranger, sometimes a loved one. Only she can see it.
Her anguished, desperate attempts to escape compose the film, as she and her friends run away, then try to destroy the creature. If that bogeyman sounds a little lame, it becomes quickly apparent that it instead has more or less unlimited potential for frights. Every shot of a doorway becomes drenched with tension. Every window. Every exterior with figures walking in the background. Mitchell knows well enough that if he features enough of these shots then the rise in tension gives his actual scares more impact when they eventually do come. And come they do, in a series of beautifully mounted set-pieces, which inventively play on the specific terror of this implacable, blank-eyed shape-shifter.
The tone is sober and muted throughout. Like Mitchell's terrific debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, It Follows is set in a strangely timeless sort of suburban world, all big lawns and wide streets. The characters are earnest, serious, lacking the flip cynicism of the teens in most modern horror cinema. But then this is nothing like most modern horror cinema, being artier and far more ambiguous, the moody synth score by Disasterpiece helping maintain that feeling of low, sickly dread throughout. There is also ample, obvious subtext here, themes of teenage alienation running alongside the key ideas of sexually transmitted disease and social stigma.
But they never get in the way of the chief aim: to frighten the audience, which is something It Follows does tremendously well.