Saturday, 30 July 2016

Jason Bourne

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Paul Greengrass
Screenplay:  Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum
Starring:  Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed
Running Time:  123 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, action

Back in 2002, The Bourne Identity, based on the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, was hailed as a breath of fresh air for the spy movie genre, which at that point was completely dominated by the increasingly irrelevant and fantastical James Bond films.  Instead this was gritty, pertinent and realistic.  It was followed by The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and The Bourne Legacy (2012), the odd one out of the series in that the character of Jason Bourne does not appear.

This film, the fifth in the series, and the fourth to feature Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, takes up from the end of The Bourne Ultimatum.  Jason Bourne is living off the grid, making money with illegal fighting, when he is alerted by hacker Nicky Parsons (Stiles) of the existence of files, concerning Bourne's identity and the truth behind his father.  This kicks off a globe trotting quest for the truth, from Athens to Berlin, to London, to Las Vegas, however Bourne is being pursued by CIA Director Robert Dewey (Jones) who wants him dead and the ruthless hired killer, The Asset (Cassel).  Bourne's only help comes from CIA Cyber Ops agent Heather Lee (Vikander).

This is a tense, exciting thriller.  Director Paul Greengrass has a background in current affairs, and television docu-dramas, and that can be seen in his extensive use of fast cutting, and constantly moving, hand-held style of shooting, this can be very distracting in dialogue scenes, but it adds a real intensity and physicality to the film's action scenes.  And this has some of the best action scenes of any film this year.  The chase through an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens is memorable, but a car chase through Las Vegas is fantastic.  A big theme in the film is surveillance, and Greengrass' style does work for that, with the camera zooming and moving back and forth to find the characters in a crowd, does seem at times like it is footage filmed through a spy camera.  However, I would warn you to be careful, if you're prone to headaches or motion sickness.

The film's main problem is the impassivity of Matt Damon as Bourne, never really showing much emotion beyond impatience, it's hard to really care much about him, when he never really seems particularly fazed by anything.  Alicia Vikander is good as the sympathetic agent, but for the most part she doesn't really have much to do.  Tommy Lee Jones is effective though as the avuncular but murderous CIA Director.                  

Matt Damon is Jason Bourne

Thursday, 28 July 2016

"End of Watch" by Stephen King

Year of Publication:  2016
Length:  351 pages
Genre:  Crime, mystery, thriller, supernatural

This novel concludes the trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes (2014) and continued with Finders Keepers (2015).  In this book, retired cop turned private detective Bill Hodges and his friend and associate Holly Gibney investigate an apparently simple murder/suicide case.  However there are odd details about the case.  It turns out to be simply the first in a series of suicides, all apparently connected by an outdated handheld games console, and all seemingly linked to serial killer Brady Hartsfield.  However, Hartsfield has been in a coma for the past six years, despite this there have been many reports of strange paranormal phenomenon surrounding him, and he seems to have some kind of malevolent influence over some of those treating him.  One thing is for sure, that Hartsfield is not nearly as dormant as he appears, and for Hodges time is running out, in more ways than one, when he learns that he has a terminal illness.

This is a real page-turning thriller and thoroughly entertaining.  Unlike the other books in the series, there is a strong supernatural element, which brings it closer to the more traditional Stephen King style, however this isn't really a horror novel.  Stephen King has always had a gift for depicting the details of the prosaic details of the real world, and making even minor characters feel real, as with the others in the series, this is a tightly written tale that moves well, and keeps the reader engaged.  The plot sometimes suffers from too many unlikely coincidences, but it's always enjoyable.  I would recommend that you read it after the other books in the series, particularly Mr. Mercedes because this is a direct sequel to that book.

As with quite a lot of Stephen King's recent work, a strong theme in the novel is ageing, and that, along with the theme of suicide that also runs through the trilogy, give the work an even darker, more melancholy hue than is usual for King.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  David Zellner
Screenplay:  David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
Starring:  Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuke Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Drama

Kumiko (Kikuchi), is a bored lonely office worker living in Tokyo.  Living alone in a tiny, cluttered flat with her pet rabbit Bunzo, she is constantly pressurised by her nagging mother (Yumiko Hioki) and hated boss (Katsube) to get married, movie on with her career, or move back with her parents.  The only bright spots in Kumiko's life are Bunzo, and her treasure hunting expeditions, with her hand embroidered treasure maps.  On one of these expeditions she finds a buried VHS tape of the movie Fargo.  Believing the film's opening title card, which claims that it is based on a true story,  Kumiko becomes obsessed with the scene where Steve Buscemi's character buries a large case of money.  Comparing herself to a Spanish Conquistador, Kumiko completely abandons her life in Tokyo to travel to Minnesota with a stolen credit card, a very weak grasp of English and completely unprepared for the harsh Minnesota winter, to search for something that may not even exist.

Very few films have the power to be both inspirational and utterly devastating at the same time.  It was inspired by the real life case of Tanako Konisi who died in Minnesota in 2001.  At the time there were reports that Konisi was searching for the money buried in Fargo, but in reality it was suicide.  This is a film of two halves, the first detailing Kumiko's unhappy life in Tokyo, and the second depicting her quest in Minnesota.  Kumiko is always a sympathetic character, but not always a particularly likeable one.  She will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, and will beg steal or borrow to get what she wants.  However Kikuchi's mesmerising performance keeps us on her side.  Really, this is Rinko Kikuchi's film.  She is in almost every scene, playing a character who is very quiet, very closed off and mostly impassive.  However Kikuchi packs so much into every quick glance from her downcast eyes, and the flickers of emotion across her face, and the devastating moments where her control breaks down.  She portrays Kumiko's steely resolve and determination, but also heartbreaking vulnerability.  There are a lot of the quirks of American indie cinema here, and it does play like a deadpan comedy, particularly in the Minnesota scenes, with Kumiko's interactions with well-meaning, but clueless locals:  The elderly lady (Venard) who puts Kumiko up for a night and tells her she should visit the Mall of America instead and gives her a copy of James Clavell's Shogun to make her feel at home, and the deputy (Zellner) who tries to help Kumiko by taking her to a Chinese restaurant, thinking that Japanese and Chinese people share the same language.

The pace is slow and deliberate, the camera usually fixed directly in front of Kumko's  face or following her closely.  She is almost always isolated and usually when there are others in the shot with her, they are seated on either side of a table.

This is about being alone, either being isolated in a city or being a stranger in a strange land.  It's about the power of dreams to heal and to destroy - whatever the consequences to be paid, there is little doubt that Kumiko's life only flares up when she has the quest to complete.  In the end the money isn't important, it's about the search.

This features one of the great screen performances, and is one of the best films of recent years.  Perfection from it's opening, to it's devastating climax.

           Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Justin Lin
Screenplay:  Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on the television series Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry
Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella
Running Time:  122 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, adventure

This is the thirteenth film in the Star Trek franchise, and the third in the rebooted series that began with Star Trek (2009) and continued with Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).  In this film the Starship Enterprise is almost three years into it's five year mission and the crew are beginning increasingly fed up with life in deep space.  After docking at a space station, the Enterprise is sent off on a rescue mission into a uncharted nebula.  Unfortunately, it turns out to be a trap, when the ship is attacked by a vast horde of mysterious craft, led by the brutal Krall (Elba) who is looking for an ancient alien artifact on board the Enterprise.

This is a hugely entertaining slice of science-fiction action.  The special effects are spectacular, and the action moves along well, but still leaves room for character moments, and humour.  It's more of an ensemble film than some previous Star Trek efforts, rather than focusing on the Kirk (Pine) and Spock (Quinto) relationship, it broadens the canvas by dividing the main crew up for most of the film, thereby meaning that they all have their own subplots to play out.  Chris Pine is good as the square-jawed hero Kirk, while Zachary Quinto is impressive as Spock and has a nice moment which serves as a tribute to the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Karl Urban is fun as the wisecracking McCoy and his fraught relationship with Spock is one of the delights of the film.  Simon Pegg is good as Scotty and is given a much bigger role than Scott usually has (which isn't surprising as Pegg co-wrote the script).  Zoe Saldana and John Cho are underused as Uhura and Sulu, although they still have their moments, and there is a nice glimpse of Sulu's family life.  Anton Yelchin is good as Chekhov (of course Yelchin died tragically just a few weeks before the film opened and it is dedicated to his memory).  Idris Elba steals the show as  the evil Krall, and Sofia Boutella is impressive as kick-ass alien fighter Jaylah.

It manages the difficult task of paying homage and staying true to the spirit of the original series, while still being very much it's own thing, and with this film the new Star Trek series really comes into it's own, and the Enterprise crew really start to work together well.  A treat for Trekkers, but with enough humour and action to appeal to non fans as well.

Sofia Boutella and Simon Pegg boldly go to Star Trek Beyond

Thursday, 21 July 2016


Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Paul Feig
Screenplay:  Kate Dippold and Paul Feig, based on the 1984 film Ghostbusters by Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Starring:  Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth
Running Time:  116 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, action, science-fiction, supernatural

This is probably the most controversial film of the year.  Ever since it was announced, it has fired up the more misogynist corners of the internet.  Every time there is a remake of a beloved film, and the 1984 Ghostbusters is seen as a modern classic, than there will be controversy, but there is an additionally ugly side to the hatred directed at this, because a lot of people are angry about the fact that the Ghostbusters are all women.

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is a professor of physics at Columbia University and is hoping for tenure.  However, a book that she has co-authored with fellow scientist Dr. Abigail Yates (McCarthy) stating their belief in the supernatural, and which Gilbert has since tried as hard as possible to distance herself from, has reappeared on-line.   Gilbert approaches Yates, who is studying the paranormal at a technical college with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon).  After the trio witness a ghost for themselves, Erin excitedly affirms her belief in the supernatural on camera, and the clip is posted online, resulting in her getting fired.  Yates and Holtzmann are also fired when they ask their Dean for more money.  They decide to go into business for themselves  as paranormal investigators dubbed "Ghostbusters", alongside ex-subway worker Patty Tolan (Jones) and dim-witted receptionist Kevin (Hemsworth).  However as the number of paranormal occurrences in New York City increase, the Ghostbusters soon realise that something very bad and very powerful is being released.

This is a hugely entertaining film, and very funny, probably funnier than the 1984 original which, good as it is, really hasn't aged very well.  The film references the original frequently and many of the stars of the previous films appear in cameo roles, however it stands on it's own and is a very different film entirely.  The special effects are spectacular and the film is well acted with Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon being especial standouts.  Some of the pacing is a bit uneven and Kristin Wiig in particular, could do with more jokes.    

This is an important film because it is a mainstream action franchise with all-female leads that more than passes cartoonist Alison Bechdel's test for female representation.  It's great that this film is out there and I think that in thirty years time this may be seen by women with the affection that the original is seen by men.  

Some people have commented that since there is an all-female Ghostbusters there should be an all- male one.  Well, there are two already from 1984 and 1989.  Which are still readily available, for fans of the originals, fear not, the remake hasn't spirited them away.

       Who you gonna call?  Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters.

Dark Night: A True Batman Story

Author:  Paul Dini, art by Eduardo Risso
Year of Publication:  2016
Length:  128 pages
Genre:  Graphic novel, autobiography

In January 1993, scriptwriter Paul Dini was at the height of his profession.  Specializing in cartoons, he wrote for Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and was writing for the internationally successful Batman:  The Animated Series (for which he created the character Harley Quinn).  However, one night returning home from a date, Dini was set upon by two muggers and savagely beaten to within an inch of his life.  After his horrific experience Dini feels unable to face life again, let alone write Batman.   After all, where was the Caped Crusader when he needed him?

Dini structures the book as if it is a movie pitch to bored Hollywood executives.  he starts with his childhood where his loneliness and frequent run-ins with bullies are mitigated by his imagination, and his love of cartoons and comics.  As an adult, his recuperation is detailed partly with a series of conversations between Dini and Batman, and famous Batman villains, such as the Joker, Two Face and Poison Ivy.  Batman is that voice that tells him to suck it up and deal with it, the Joker is more seductive, telling Dini that he doesn't need to work on that script, just play video games and watch TV, he can get back to work the next day, or the day after that, or the day...

Risso's art is beautiful, detailing the characters in lusciously coloured paintings, that evoke the look of early 1990s cartoons.  I read it in a few hours and enjoyed it immensely.  It is sometimes dark, sometimes funny, often gritty.  It is a powerful and effective tale of healing and the power of art and creation, and also the fact that fictional characters can have such great value to real life.


Saturday, 16 July 2016


Year of Release:  1990
Director:  Rob Reiner
Screenplay:  William Goldman, based on the novel Misery by Stephen King
Starring:  James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall
Running Time:  107 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, horror

Paul Sheldon (Caan) is the writer of a best-selling series of historical romance novels featuring heroine Misery Chastain.  However he is sick of the series and in his latest novel concludes the series by finally killing off Misery, so he can begin work on more "serious" literary fiction.  However, driving through the mountain roads of Colorado on his way to deliver the manuscript he is badly injured in a serious car accident.  Luckily he is saved by nurse Annie Wilkes (Bates) and taken to her remote farmhouse.  Even better, Annie is his Number One Fan!  However she is not happy about his new artistic direction, and she is even less happy when she reads the final Misery novel.  Now Paul has to write one special Misery novel, just for her.  Because when Annie  gets upset, people get hurt. Very badly hurt.

This is a gripping thriller, based on a 1987 Stephen King novel.  The novel was very personal to King, and he was reluctant to sell the film rights, although he was happy to let Rob Reiner make the film, because Reiner had made Stand By Me (1986), one of King's favourite adaptations of his work.  The book was inspired partly due to the very negative reaction many of his fans had to King's non-horror fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon.  King felt that the horror genre was imprisoning him, and he wanted to branch out.  King was also in the grip of a serious drug addiction at the time he was writing the novel, and later claimed that the character of Annie Wilkes was a metaphor for drugs.

The film is about the "contract" between creators and their audience.  The fans pay their money for what the creator produces, but in return they want the creator to keep on producing the material they like.  However, what happens when the creator wants to do something different?  When they do not want to produce what the fans demand.  Of course there is no contract.  You pay for the individual book, comic, film, whatever, and have no right to tell the creator what to do in the future.  There are of course the people who would strongly disagree with this.  The Annie Wilkes of the world who would say "Oh no, you're ours.  You'll do what we say."

Essentially this is a two-hander between James Caan and Kathy Bates, both of whom turn in fantastic performances.  In the unpredictable Annie Wilkes, who can turn from kindly, caring nurse to violent maniac in an instant, Kathy Bates creates one of the screen's greatest and most memorable monsters, and walks away with the entire film.  James Caan is affecting as the tortured writer.  Caan is a big, physically imposing actor, best known for tough guy roles such as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather and it's interesting to see him almost completely de-powered.   Richard Fansworth and Frances Sternhagen provide comic relief, and a break from the claustrophobic tension in the farmhouse,  as the kindly local Sheriff and his sarcastic wife.

The film mostly concerns itself with the psychological duel between Annie and Paul, however it does have one teeth-clenchingly shocking moment with the "hobbling" scene involving Annie, Paul's feet and a large sledgehammer.

Tense, exciting and sometimes very funny, surprisingly so, this is one of the best Stephen King adaptations, and a truly fantastic thriller.

    Bedside manner:  Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery


Year of Release:  1975
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:  Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley
Starring:  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Running Time:  124 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, horror

This is one of the most popular and influential movies ever made.  When a late night swimmer is savagely killed in the waters off Amity Island, local Police Chief Martin Brody (Scheider) soon realises that there is a vicious shark in the waters.  However the mayor (Hamilton) refuses to close the beaches because the residents rely on the money brought in by summer tourists, especially with the Fourth of July weekend coming up, the island's busiest time of the year.  As the shark claims more victims, Brody enlists the aid of marine biologist Hooper (Dreyfuss), and grizzled old sea dog Quint (Shaw) to stop the terror.

This film pretty much started the summer blockbuster, having an unusually wide release for the time, backed by heavy advertising and merchandising, which helped it become the most successful film ever made, until Star Wars (1977) came along.  Based on the successful novel by Peter Benchley, who co-wrote the script and appears in the film as a TV interviewer, the film had a famously difficult production: it went hugely over budget and over schedule, there was tension between actors Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, and the model shark (nicknamed "Bruce" after Spielberg's lawyer)  looked completely fake.  However the shark problems proved to be a blessing in disguise.  Due to the fact that it looked so bad, Spielberg severely cut back on how often it appeared on screen, so that the shark is largely hinted at and suggested rather than shown in all it's glory.  This is part of what makes the film so effective, the underwater scenes where the camera glides along beneath unsuspecting victims accompanied by John Williams' famous score.  It's the basic fear that Jaws ties into.  When you're in the water, most of you is submerged, and you can't really see what is down there with you.  It could be anything.  Anything at all.

 Another strength that the film has is Spielberg's eye for the minutiae of every day life, the cluttered homes, boats and offices, the naturalistic dialogue and performances.

It is one of the great Hollywood thrillers, exciting, often witty and quotable dialogue and also surprisingly gruesome.

  Roy Scheider is going to need a bigger boat in Jaws

Monday, 11 July 2016

Perfect Blue

Year:  1997
Director:  Satoshi Kon
Screenplay:  Sadayuki Murai, based on the novel Perfect Blue:  Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi
Starring:  Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Okura
Running Time:  81 minutes
Genre:  Psychological thriller, horror, drama

This dark, animated Japanese thriller tells the story of Mima Kirigoe (Iwao), squeaky clean singer in all-girl pop trio CHAM!  Deciding to branch out, Mima quits the band to become an actress.  Her first role is in a gritty, explicit murder mystery drama on TV.  After quitting, Mima finds herself harassed by anonymous telephone calls and notes, she also discovers a website containing a blog, purportedly written by her, describing her daily life in disturbingly accurate detail.  Soon, people connected with the show turn up brutally murdered and Mima begins to suffer bizarre hallucinations where her pop singer persona and the plot of the show, bleed into her real life.

This film was originally intended as a live action drama series, but, after the production facilities were damaged in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, it was decided to make it as a direct to video animated film, with Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo credited as "Special Supervisor" to help sell the film internationally.  The film is a genuinely disturbing horror thriller, which in a way is even more disturbing because of the fact that it is animated, giving it a dreamlike quality.  It deals with perception, reality, identity and image.  Even before she becomes an actress, Mima is still playing a part as a pop "idol" (in Japan idols are manufactured pop stars who are there to be cute, have a squeaky clean public image and be good role models).  Mima is constantly hounded by press and fans, there is a huge pressure on her as she tries to reinvent herself and her image.  People are forever projecting their own ideas and desires onto her, she is constantly being discussed and told what she should be doing.  The idea of "looking" is important as well.  Mima is often seen through screens, camera lenses, mirrors, windows.  The animation is dated, and there are some things that show it's age (Mima is unaware of the internet and has to have it explained to her), however it has mostly aged well, and some elements, such as on-line harassment, are sadly even more relevant.

It's a powerful film with an intriguing central mystery, although I would warn you that it is violent and disturbing.


Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Imitation Game

Year:  2014
Director:  Morten Tyldum
Screenplay:  Graham Moore, based on the book Alan Turing:  The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong, Charles Dance
Running Time:  114 minutes
Genre:  Period drama, thriller, war

This film is a historical drama based on the life of mathematician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who was the head of the team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park who worked to decrypt the German Enigma codes for the British Government during the Second World War.  The movie moves back and forth between three key periods in Turing's life: His time at boarding school in the 1920s, where the teenage Turing (Alex Lawther) first develops an interest in codes and finds respite from frequent bullying in his close friendship with a fellow pupil (Jack Bannon); his downfall in 1951 where he is arrested for "gross indecency" due to his homosexuality (which was a criminal offence at the time); and, by far the most extensive section of the film, his wartime experience trying to decode the Enigma codes.

I don't know much at all about the life of Alan Turing or how historically accurate the film is, so I'm going to be talking about the film as a drama.  However I have heard that it is not particularly true to the facts of the story.  However it works as a drama.  It is well made, well acted  particularly by Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and Keira Knightley as fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke.  It also does well at making Turing's work as accessible and possible for the general audience.  The recreation of the 1940s is fascinating.  The difficulty with a lot of biopics is that they can tend towards shapelessness, but this film structures it as a compelling thriller.  There could have been more about the tragedy of Turing's later life, however, if it encourages people to learn more about a man who has pretty much shaped our lives today with his contributions to computer science, and a shameful period in the history of LGBT rights, than it is a success.

 Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch  in The Imitation Game