Film review – Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)

There is a scene two hours into Die Another Day. It takes a while to get to but it feels like the worthwhile pay off to the most patient of viewers. As Bond takes off a virtual reality headset we discover that the whole sexual fantasy had been in fact part of a simulation. Simple, effective, genuinely funny. That the Bond at the centre of the scene isn’t character James but actress Samantha portraying Miss Moneypenny is simply a stark and damning assessment of arguably the worst film in the franchise’s history.

Die Another Day, across the board, leaves a lot to be desired. The story feels messy and the dialogue makes it drag. Pierce Brosnan was never convincing as a womaniser, not in the charming way Sean Connery was that allowed the audience to both believe him and forgive him. It is a script laden with quips, come-ons and innuendo and I was left urging the women to slap him and ground the whole thing in some semblance of reality.

The technology is ridiculous even by Bond’s standards, with the inclusion of invisible Aston Martin the real calamity that lets the whole film down. The rhythm of the film makes this very much the centrepiece, utilised in the critical scenes right at the climax of the film in a pointless car chase and subsequent rescue mission. The wheels are revealed to have traction treads in them very late in the day, which would probably have saved the entire chase and… well the whole scene is very easy to get nitpicky about to be honest. I’m sure you’ll have as much fun as I did yelling at the screen.

The name’s Bad Guy. Unconvincing Bad Guy. – Image by © MGM/Corbis

The CGI just makes them all worse, though it reaches a trough when we see the destruction weapon called Icarus. This is clearly a matter of sheer terror that could cause the absolute destruction of entire countries, being that it focuses light from the sun and turns it into a giant flaming beam of light that rips through everything in its path. Director Lee Tamahori and the team at Eon Productions had 25 years to digest how George Lucas achieved this remarkable visual spectacle on a shoestring budget in 1977 for Star Wars, but yet they still managed to fail miserably in ripping it off here. You may also question why the icebergs don’t completely melt immediately when touched by the rays, or why the flaming beams stop instead of ripping through to the centre of the earth, or why nothing seems to be on fire. But hey, this is Bond. Am I right?

This also has the very worst Bond theme song of be lot, as well as the worst overall soundtrack that clumsily places modern tracks into scenes to miserable effect. Bond’s on his way to London? Throw in ‘London’s Calling’ by The Clash. That’ll do. It’s hard to escape Madonna’s terrible song too, running at the start and end of the film, sounding nothing like a Bond track, trying and failing to do something different with the well-trodden rules. In case you had managed to move on from it, Madonna pops up early in the film as a fencing teacher. She acts well but it’s a terrible scene that needlessly shows Bond struggling to keep up with someone to prove a point that he has a bit of rivalry with the film’s primary antagonist.

It is rarely so obvious that James Bond is punching above his weight. – Image by © MGM/Corbis

The whole Gustav Graves gene swap with Zao is very problematic for me. It is entirely pointless and seems superfluous to the script, borrowing heavily from Face/Off some five years after it had hit cinemas and proved that the follow-through doesn’t match the idea. Bond is a leading MI5 expert and the fact he didn’t have any suspicions at all is simply because the filmmakers made no attempt to leave any breadcrumbs for him nor the audience, making the Act 3 reveal a little hollow and a bit of a cheat. Could Graves perhaps have utilised some of the martial arts that had Bond struggling in an earlier fight sequence, given that he was actually Zao and an expert in martial arts. Instead he was portrayed as an expert in fencing, which is doable for sure but makes me begin to question the timeline for the switch.

Remarkably, there was a planned spin-off with Halle Berry reprising her role as Jinx, though this was canned following the lukewarm response to this film. Allegedly many of the plot points were reused for Casino Royale, which history has proven to be somewhat of a saviour of the franchise and a well-loved instalment for die-hard Bond fans and general film lovers. It’s a shame because Halle Berry clearly suited the role and was one of the few shining lights in a very poor film. It’s something that we’ll sadly never see now, with the franchise back on its own two feet and with no need of a spin-off to help maintain public interest.

Brosnan is, for me, not the worst Bond to have hit the silver screen. He was, by the end of his tenure, a Bond for the wrong era. As the Bourne series was launched, what cinema-goers wanted was exactly what Daniel Craig provided – roughness, realism and believability. He has proven himself over a four-film series and that is something that Brosnan, eventually, failed to do.

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Film review – Arabesque (Stanley Donen, 1966)

“Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. This damning statement by director Stanley Donan about the film ‘Arabesque’, as recalled by cinematographer Christopher Challis in his 1995 memoirs ‘Are They Really So Awful?‘, explains quite a lot about the final product. It had reportedly already cost $400,000 to have the script rewritten several times, partly due to the casting of Gregory Peck instead of the preferred choice of Cary Grant in the lead role. The result is a film that is almost the definition of style over substance, with a feeling of a real missed opportunity to something truly special.

The confused and therefore confusing script centres around Professor David Pollack (Grant), an expert in ancient hieroglyphics. He is approached aggressively by Middle Eastern Prime Minister Hassan Jena (Carl During) and his ambassador to Great Britain, Mohammed Lufti (Harold Kasket), who offer him £20,000 to solve a hieroglyph-based riddle, the answer to which is highly urgent. Pollack is forced to work inside the mansion of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel), where he also meets the infinitely distracting Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), though he quickly realises that he will be killed once he has solved the riddle and decides to escape, with Yasmin in tow, triggering a chase across the brilliantly-captured 1960s London.

Stanley Donen had risen in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s following a prolonged successful run of musical films, primarily with MGM. Having made his name as a Hollywood choreographer in the 1940s, he helmed such classics as On The Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957) and The Pajama Game (1957). He was, by the end of the 1950s, regarded as one of the great directors from the golden era of Hollywood.

Donen then set his base in London, a move that coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to Marion Marshall. This film is one of a handful that were produced during Donen’s British period, which defined a decade of his career throughout the 1960s. The period was a fruitful one, yielding such films as 1960 ‘Once More, with Feeling!‘ and ‘Surprise Package’ (both 1960), ‘Charade’ (1963), ‘Two for the Road and ‘Bedazzled (both 1967) and the now-hard-to-find camp comedy ‘Staircase‘ (1969).

Arabesque‘ could be seen as Donen’s attempt to make a film in the style of Hitchcock, with the feeling of a political suspense mirror reminiscent of ‘Torn Curtain‘, which had been released in 1966. If it was, it was a failure, with any feeling of suspense being lost amongst a clumsy plot that is tricky to follow.

For all the failings of the plot, the sheer beauty of Sophia Loren cannot be escaped. Dressed in the exquisite fashion of Christian Dior, she is the perfect example of elegance in film. Indeed, it is a point the studio and director were clearly keen to underline, with a special note during the opening credits that reads “Miss Sophia Loren’s wardrobe specially created by Christian Dior”. One can’t help but contrast this with the epic failure of Donen’s final box-office release ‘Blame it on Rio’, which feels comparatively devoid of any artistic merit and relies on smut and nudity to progress the plot.

To begin to enjoy this film, one must suspend the entirely noticeable fact that there are a handful of Arabic characters that feature in the film, none of whom are of Arabic descent. It’s something that simply isn’t commonplace in 2017, which may be jarring to the modern viewer, though cinephiles will surely have to cope with much worse as they explore further back into the history of cinema.

Whilst the first two acts plod from plot twist to excruciating plot twist at a terrifying rate that feels both too fast and too slow to elicit any kind of positive response, the same cannot be said of the final act. It is here that we are finally rewarded for sticking with the film and are rewarded with a chase scene across some famous landmarks that feels as spectacular as any of Donen’s dance routines of his early career.

The question remains whether or not the audience should be made to work for around 90 minutes for such a pay-off, but regardless of this fact there is enough going on here to warrant a viewing. It’s not so much style-over-substance and style-then-substance. If you’re happy for this imbalance as the two factors are tragically compartmentalised, then you’ll find a fairly decent piece of cinema awaits you.

Film review – Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers of a good film. Just go watch it. Then come back.

Taylor Sheridan’s first mainstream foray into directing comes in the form of Wind River, a low-budget film that makes good use of some astute casting to harness a subtle script to leave an impact way beyond the sum of its parts.

Part murder mystery, part western thriller, it plods along at a pace that, at times, risks feeling simply like a better-than-average TV investigation drama. Then, with a well-executed flashback as the introduction to the final act, the film turns into a classic western, complete with Mexican stand-off and the resulting bloodbath. It’s the payoff for a steady build-up that is well worth the wait.

The plot centres around an unsettling and mysterious opening sequence, where we follow professional huntsman Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, USA. Her body is frozen in the snow and there are clear signs of rape. She is without shoes. FBI agent Jane Banner is brought in to investigate, quickly forming an unlikely bond with Lambert to trace and track the truth.

Wyoming is the unorthodox setting for the story, captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Much of the film is set in mountainous terrain and the snow-covered land becomes integral to the plot. But as picturesque as the environment is, the bloody and violent story playing over the top trumps it.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis team up again to provide a moody and fitting soundtrack, shadowing the film rather than becoming overbearing.

It’s a gritty conclusion to Sheridan’s trilogy – following Sicario and Hell Or High Water – and one that absolutely does its predecessors justice. It may not feel as brash and immediate as either film, but the three films feel like they are a strong body of work and wholly played out in the same universe. As a result, Taylor Sheridan is holding his own with both David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve – a sign he has the ability to keep delivering the goods.

Film review – Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

As I sat alone in the local multiplex chain cinema, watching the fellow viewers trickling in, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the couple on a date a few rows in front of me. They’d stocked up for the next couple of hours with the standard fare: a popcorn tub bigger than their own heads, a couple of XL soft drinks, a pouch full of chocolate nibbles. They may well have been wearing Star Wars t-shirts, hoping to see lead actor John Boyega in something other than Poe Dameron’s jacket, but I didn’t quite see. The point is, they almost certainly had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. To some extent, neither did I.

As a British man in his early 30s, the real tragedy of the 1967 Detroit Riots were largely lost on me until the announcement of Kathryn Bigelow’s film. It’s a film seeking to shed light on the events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel as part of the 12th Street Riot. Whilst the motives behind making the film may have been perfectly justifiable when its production was announced in January 2016, the poignancy of its release over the backdrop of the recent events in Charlottesville could only be lost on the most unaware of cinema goers.

The film is split into three acts. The first provides a backdrop to the riots and the status of the never-ending and constantly evolving racial tensions across the USA. This act also serves to introduce some of the key players in the film: Boyega stars as diplomatic security guard Melvin Dismukes; Will Poulter portrays trigger-happy policeman Philip Kraus; Algee Smith is aspiring singer and performer Larry Reed; Hannah Murray features as young female Julie Ann.

The final act is essentially a courtroom drama that covers the fallout from the middle portion, which is a breathtaking piece of cinema that Bigelow has chosen to tell in realtime. Kraus heads up a police operation to discover what is believed to be a sniper rifle fired from the Algiers Motel, with a group of innocent black men standing accused along with two white girls. The racism is evident, driving the policemen’s actions and words to breaking point, leaving several people dead and the remainder with horrific memories of the night.

It is overwhelmingly upsetting and unsettling, made even worse by the fact it is based on accounts of real events. It seems unfathomable that anyone could watch this and not wince. It’s certainly something that has stayed fresh in my mind since I saw the film, which gives me a fraction of an idea of what it must be like for the survivors of the incident.

John Boyega’s performance is perfectly nuanced as he stands by almost helpless, doing what he can to keep the accused alive. As a security guard he is afforded a degree of respect, though it is respect that is only uniform deep. It’s not an easy role to pull off. The scene in the police interrogation room that kicks of Act 3 is almost as horrifying as what has come before, and it is in this scene that Boyega really shows his acting mettle.

Will Poulter is also worth pulling out as the extraordinarily derisible policeman Kraus. It may just be so good that he will suffer typecasting for the rest of his career. The role is written so you can do nothing but hate him, but not every actor can achieve this with such little charm. That’s deliberate and is thus a genuine triumph by Poulter.

Detroit has seemingly fallen away at the box office now, failing to recoup the production costs. In a week where The Emoji Movie continues to run having made a global profit of over $30m, I can’t help but wonder whether escapism is the order of the day for film fans at the moment. Why would we want to see a long film like this when it seems to be on the news every week anyway?

Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Film review – Le Fille Inconnue / The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2016)

It may have an interesting premise, but a dislikeable lead and a plot that lacks the sort of understated excitement that has won the Dardenne Brothers two Palme d’Or awards make The Unknown Girl a difficult watch.

Adèle Haenel stars as Dr Jenny Davin, a promising young doctor excelling at her job as a GP. However, one night she chooses to ignore a call at her practice’s door, assuming it is a late caller with some minor ailment. However, when she later finds out that it was a young girl in desperate need of help who shortly after was seemingly murdered, she becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind the incident to atone for her mistake.

Adèle Haenel


I desperately wanted to like this film. I like the director duo and have been impressed by their previous output, but there was so little to work with on this one. 

Haenel fails to deliver any depth to a role that is a doozy for someone wanting to prove themselves to the world. Perhaps the fact she has already done this with an extraordinary body of work is one of the reasons she seems to lack passion in her delivery.

As a follow-up to the Oscar-nominated ‘Two Days, One Night‘, this can only be seen as a disappointment for the Dardenne Brothers.