Upgrade (2018)

2019 #44
Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

Change can be painful

On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

4 out of 5

Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

2018 #61
Patrick Hughes | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Netherlands, China & Bulgaria / English, Russian & Spanish | 15 / R

The Hitman's Bodyguard

With a daft-ish title and promotional campaign that definitely amped up the comedy, you might be surprised to learn that The Hitman’s Bodyguard started life as a drama. Yep, apparently so. Then, a few weeks prior to filming, the script underwent a “frantic” two-week rewrite to be remixed into a comedy. The end result is kind of a mixed bag, which, all things considered, makes sense.

The hitman of the title is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who agrees to testify against a dictator (Gary Oldman, underused) in exchange for the release of his wife from prison. While being transported through (of all places) Coventry, Kincaid and his escort are ambushed. The one surviving agent calls in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to help. Bryce is a private bodyguard — formerly to elite clients, until Kincaid assassinated one of them. Suffice to say, the two don’t get along. Cue banter as the mismatched pair face more tribulations on their way to The Hague.

So, it’s a buddy action comedy, a well-worn genre, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard has nothing new to add to it. That said, while the antics may not be especially original, they’re not badly done. The film offers few big laughs, but there are one or two, and a couple of smiles. On the other hand, it’s a good 20 minutes too long (it needs to sacrifice some of the chatter, maybe some of the flashbacks, and definitely at least one action sequence) and some bits are inappropriately grim (random murder of parents? Photos of mass executions?) I guess those tonal inadequacies are the legacy of the last-minute rewrites, but, still, someone should’ve fixed that.

Explosion!

The action centrepiece is a rather good stunt-filled five-way chase between Jackson in a speedboat, Reynolds on a motorbike, Russian hit men, Interpol agents, and the Amsterdam police in cars. It’s not going to be challenging the John Wicks of this world for classic status, but it thrills enough. What seems like the climax is another pretty good one, as it intercuts a car chase with a hardware store fight that makes full use of the tools on hand. (I say “seems like” because it has another shoot-out after they finally make it to The Hague — like I said, it’s at least one action scene too long.)

Apparently The Hitman’s Bodyguard only cost $30 million, which is $5 million less than The Hurricane Heist (which I watched on the same evening, hence the comparison). But this film looks considerably more expensive than the other, and it has several considerably bigger-name stars too. I guess some people just know how to spend money better than others. This comparison is also relevant for my final score, because it again calls into question my non-use of half-stars on this blog. On Letterboxd I rated The Hurricane Heist as 2.5 and The Hitman’s Bodyguard as 3.5, a whole star different, but here they both get rounded to the same score. Well, no one said life was fair.

3 out of 5

Ryan Reynold’s latest law enforcement-adjacent role is as the voice of the eponymous character in Detective Pikachu, in cinemas now.

The Meg (2018)

2019 #77
Jon Turteltaub | 113 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

The Meg

Jason Statham vs. a giant prehistoric shark — what more do you need to know?

Okay, well, despite the obvious pulp-blockbuster nature of this premise, it’s actually based on a novel, which was originally published in 1997 and so I guess arrived in a wave of post-Jurassic Park interest in man vs. prehistoric creatures thrillers. Well, Jurassic Park and the other obvious comparison, Jaws, were also both adapted from novels, so perhaps it’s not so weird after all. I’d never heard of the book before, but apparently it has a dedicated fanbase (there are multiple sequels), who were disappointed with this film because it makes some radical changes to the source material. Clearly, I’m not the right person to make that comparison.

Judged as a film in its own right, then, I thought it was a ton of fun. You know what you’re getting into with that pitch, and doubly so if you’ve watched the trailer. This isn’t some thought-provoking docu-drama about “what if we really discovered a prehistoric creature still lived?” This isn’t even Jaws, a relatively grounded adventure movie about normal people defeating a larger-than-average killer shark. This is a movie about a super-high-tech underwater research facility that accidentally unleashes a prehistoric monster and then all the scientists and submariners and whatnot on board have to track it down and stop it. This is a move about Jason Statham fighting a giant shark.

Stath vs shark

All of that said, some people have criticised the movie for not being quite as daft or out there as they wanted from a B-movie-inspired effects spectacular. I guess that’s a real “your mileage will vary” situation. Personally, I had a lot of fun with it. It keeps things more grounded than the utter batshit craziness of, say, Sharknado, but it’s clearly still allowing itself to have fun with the situations and concepts. It also doesn’t feel too samey, which considering there are only so many ways to interact with a giant shark is some kind of achievement.

Other criticisms I’ve read include that it’s too slow to get going, focusing on undersea rescues rather than getting straight to Stath-on-shark action. Again, this was something I actually liked about the film — that it allowed at least some time to build the Meg up as a mysterious unseen force (and, in the grand scheme of things, not that much time — this isn’t Jaws). It also gave the film a certain scope and scale. It’s not like this shark rocks up and they defeat it in an afternoon — the plot spread out over a couple of days, at least. I don’t know, there’s just something I like about that pacing.

Also, the film is a Chinese co-production, and so features many major and minor Chinese characters, and the climax is set in the vicinity of a Chinese beach. I’ve seen people criticise this aspect of the film because… um… Yeah, not liking that aspect smacks of racism, let’s be honest. I’m not saying everyone who dislikes The Meg is a racist — that would be stupid — but some reviews I’ve seen come with this slightly weird sense that part of the reason they dislike it is because it’s 50% (if that) a Chinese blockbuster.

Who fancies Chinese for dinner?

At the end of the day, I come back to what I said at the start: it’s a movie about a giant prehistoric shark being unleashed and attacking humans, and Jason Statham has to fight it. That’s all. It delivered on that in spades for me and I had a great time with it. And I guess tied to that pulpiness, if you have the option and enjoy the effect, I thought it looked fantastic in 3D.

4 out of 5

The Meg is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

2018 #63
John McTiernan | 128 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & German | 15 / R

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Making a sequel to what’s regarded as one of, if not the, greatest action (and Christmas) movies of all time is basically a hiding to nothing — however good your work, if it’s not a stone-cold classic too then it’s a relative failure. Nonetheless, there are those who’d argue this second sequel to Die Hard is practically as good as the first one, and they’d practically be right.

After having to defend a skyscraper in the first film and an airport in the second, this time it’s an entire city that’s relying on John McClane (Bruce Willis): a terrorist known only as ‘Simon’ (Jeremy Irons) insists McClane engage in a series of outlandish games in a twisted version of Simon Says, with each successfully completed task preventing the detonation of bombs around New York City. But ‘Simon’ actually has a whole other plan, and there’s a reason he sought out the involvement of McClane…

I’m being coy about Simon’s true identity because the film plays it as a big reveal. I don’t know if it was a surprise twist back in ’95 — it’s not given away in the trailers, but I don’t know about other pre-release material. If it ever was a secret, well, I don’t think it is anymore. I’ve certainly known it almost as long as I can remember. It’s a shame, really, because while it doesn’t exactly ruin the film, it does somewhat undermine the first 45-or-so minutes where it’s played as a mystery.

Dirty cop

That’s doubly disappointing because the the first half-or-so of the film is absolutely excellent: fast-paced (it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up), exciting, engaging. Willis is teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson, which makes for a fun double act. Jeremy Irons is reliably excellent as the villain. Okay, it’s not as classic a role as Alan Rickman in the first one, but then what is? But once Simon’s identity and plan are revealed, the pace and ingenuity begin to flag a little. It doesn’t get bad by any means, but it fails to maintain that early momentum throughout. It’s at least one action sequence too long — literally, because the finale is, pace-wise, an unnecessary addendum. Maybe something could’ve gone earlier to keep it tight, too.

Really, these are niggles; stuff that holds it back from absolute perfection. The inadequacy is only apparent becomes it comes after the first half, which is fantastic. Nonetheless, they niggled me enough to hold me back from giving With a Vengeance a full 5 stars, sadly. (However, I hasten to add that, although this is the same mark I gave Die Hard 2, With a Vengeance is a lot better — in retrospect, I’d probably give the first sequel a 3.)

But my biggest regret is that my insistence on watching film series in order, and my general tardiness about actually doing that watching (it feels like With a Vengeance has been on BBC One all the damn time throughout my life — I coulda watched it decades ago — but it took me a good few years to see Die Hard, and I didn’t watch Die Harder ’til after I started this blog), means I haven’t got round to seeing this until now. I mean, I should be on my third or fourth viewing already! Damn.

4 out of 5

It Comes at Night (2017)

2018 #55
Trey Edward Shults | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Comes at Night

Described by Kim Newman in his Empire review as “existing between a Sundance and a FrightFest film”, which is a neat way of putting “arthouse horror”, It Comes at Night went down very poorly with many viewers, seemingly because it was mis-sold by its trailers. As someone who went in pretty much cold, however, I thought it was very good.

Sometime after some kind of contagion has wiped out civilisation, we’re introduced to a family — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — who’ve sequestered themselves in a secure house deep in the woods. But their existence is disrupted by the arrival of a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son seeking refuge. Although Paul is deeply distrustful, he agrees to take them in. But is there some one, or some thing, else waiting for them in the woods?

Well, I should be careful there, lest I slip into doing what the trailers did. I watched one after the movie, and it certainly wasn’t a great representation of the film. So was it wrong to advertise it as a horror movie? Yes and no. I mean, it’s not your typical horror flick, but it is moody and creepy and tense, and scary because of it. I’m tempted to compare it to something like The VVitch, though their styles do diverge as they go on (I could say how, exactly, but it might be construed as a spoiler). It partly depends how you define genre. You could argue It Comes at Night is actually a psychological thriller with a dash of sci-fi (thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting) — and it definitely is those things — but, functionally, it’s a horror movie. It’s built to unnerve and scare you. It’s only really once those immediate terrors are out of the way — i.e. when the film ends — that what it leaves you to chew over is its commentary on paranoia and trust.

Distrust

In the case of the latter, and the way it executes its sci-fi-ish setting, it all feels very realistic and plausible. That realism is underscored by the pace, structure, and characterisation. The combination of the writing and an array of good performances mean all the characters come across as believable, supportable people — there are no clear heroes and villains here. And even things that look like clues to solving some mystery turn out to be, if not red herrings, then functional dead ends.

It’s a very well-made film on the whole. The cinematography by Drew Daniels looks incredible. Well, some of the daytime stuff just has a grainy, handheld, documentary-ish feel, which is appropriate and well done if fundamentally unremarkable; but everything in the house after dark — seemingly lit only by handheld lanterns and torches — looks fantastic. And all that darkness is suitably scary, of course. Plus film grammar nerds are going to love something subtle the visuals do later on, if they even notice it — it’s that low-key that it might pass you by, but it’s really effective. (Writer-director Trey Edward Shults discusses what it is, and why they did it, in this interview. I had so much of that article copied into my notes for this review that I decided I may as well just share the whole thing.) I also liked the score by Brian McOmber. Sometimes it feels a mite familiar from other movies of this style, but it remains highly effective — not overblown, but atmospheric, without being a mere background hum.

The best way to see It Comes at Night is as cold as possible — perhaps off the back of a positive, accurate review, say. A lot of the low viewer scores and negative comments do seem to stem from being mis-sold by the trailers, and I hope that, divorced from that, the film will be able to latterly find an appreciative audience; one not interested in gore and jump scares, but in tension, paranoia, and the psychology of fear.

4 out of 5

The Silence (2019)

2019 #58
John R. Leonetti | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / PG-13

The Silence

A 15- / PG-13-rated horror movie in which the world is under attack from creatures who hunt and kill via sound, and we follow a family who attempts to survive by hiding in a remote farmhouse, aided by the fact they’ve all learnt sign language to communicate with their deaf teenage daughter.

If you’re thinking “wait a minute, that’s a description of A Quiet Place,” you’re right, it is. It’s also a wholly accurate summary of this new direct-to-Netflix film.* Yes, really, they are that similar. At first glance it seems utterly ludicrous that Netflix would release such a blatant rip-off, especially just one year after the previous film; but, as ever, there’s a little more to it than meets the eye: The Silence is based on a novel published in 2015, and filming began back in September 2017. It seems it got unlucky, and is now doomed to be dismissed as no more than a shameless rip-off. But while it’s not The Silence’s fault that A Quiet Place beat it to the punch, it is the film’s own fault that it’s not very good.

The real problem here seems to be the screenplay. John R. Leonetti’s direction is fine, if unremarkable, and there are decent performances, particularly from leads Kiernan Shipka and Stanley Tucci, but they’re all saddled with a poorly rendered narrative. Early on, backstory is dumped via some random teenage-diary-level voiceover narration, making sure to shoehorn in some information that we then never actually need to know. One part of that asserts something along the lines of “everyone has a story of where they were when it happened; this is our story,” and then just minutes later we cut away to an event happening that’s completely unconnected to the main story. To make matters worse, it only does that once. It’s like they could only come up with one other idea for what might be going on during this disaster.

Just going for a nice family walk

The way The Silence handles its deaf character is another case in point, especially when contrasted with A Quiet Place. The latter embraced its deaf character and the family’s sign language communication (far more of the dialogue was signed than spoken), whereas The Silence sees to be doing its best to avoid or cover for that fact: she only went deaf when she was 13, so she still speaks, and she can lip-read so well people that other people don’t always bother signing to her either. There’s a bunch of little moments that undermine it as well. For example, at one point she has a video call conversation with her boyfriend, when for reasons of both situation (she’s sat in the back of the car with her family) and character (she’s deaf) it would make more sense for them to be texting. But later, the film flips all this on its head: once they full accept they need to stay as quiet as possible, they start mouthing things and signing all over the place, but the film doesn’t bother to subtitle it… although, ironically, if you turn on the hard-of-hearing subtitle track, it is subtitled. What a mess.

Even coming in the wake of A Quiet Place, The Silence had a chance to mark itself out by telling a slightly different story: here the event is just beginning, so we’re witnessing the stuff the other film skipped over. Except A Quiet Place skipped it for good reason: we’ve seen this “the apocalypse begins” rigmarole in many films before. The Silence doesn’t have any significantly new perspectives on it. Eventually it introduces a cult of religious nutters to threaten the family, but it does so with less than half-an-hour of the film left, consequently racing through to a conclusion at breakneck speed. It’s weirdly rushed after the almost methodical hour that preceded it.

It’s not an unmitigated disaster — there are moments that work, and Shipka and Tucci are both very watchable — but the overall concoction is poor, with shortcomings that are only emphasised by how well it was done in A Quiet Place.

2 out of 5

The Silence is available on Netflix now.

* Unless you’re in Germany, where it’s instead getting a theatrical release next month. ^

The Highwaymen (2019)

2019 #48
John Lee Hancock | 132 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Highwaymen

There’s a fair chance you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde thanks to the acclaimed 1967 movie (or the 2013 miniseries, or one of the other fictional depictions, or just their general notoriety), but what about the story of the guys who got ’em? For all the Robin Hood-esque heroism that was conveyed upon them by the media at the time and then cemented in subsequent fictional retellings, they were still murder-happy criminals. The Highwaymen sets out to do its part in rectifying this by introducing us to Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were reinstated in early 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde and put an end to their crime spree.

Netflix has self-described the film as “The Untouchables meets Public Enemies” (they’re doing the job of reviewers for us!), and, while I’ve only seen one of those movies, I don’t think they’re far wrong. Netflix are well known for commissioning projects that are similar to other stuff people like (reportedly their first-ever original, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and produced/directed by David Fincher, came about because statistics showed viewers liked to watch the original BBC series, movies starring Spacey, and movies directed by Fincher), but this feels like one of the most blatant examples I’ve personally seen. Movies like Live by Night and Road to Perdition also came to my mind whilst watching, but it’s not limited to specific examples — it just feels like other movies set in about the same period about the same kind of thing. Well, we might blame Netflix’s data-centric thinking for that, but it’s actually nothing new in Hollywood.

Men of the highway

As a work in its own right, The Highwaymen is a solid period investigative thriller. It’s distinctly lacking the youthful verve and excitement of the ’67 film, which matched the youthfulness of its killer couple, replacing it instead with a slow-ish, world-weary methodicalness, which again matches its central pairing. That could be deliberate, or it could just be another instance of the recurring problem that Netflix-originated content is slower than it needs to be. When police procedurals are slow because they’re focusing on the exacting, gradual accumulation of evidence and data that leads to the downfall of the bad guys, that can be a good thing, and there’s an element of that here; but at other times it just feels a bit tardy. What it lacks is a sense of urgency, which you’d think the hunt for ceaseless murderers would have. We’re told these villains need to be stopped ASAP, and we see them continue to commit crimes as our heroes are still hunting for them, but we never really feel any sense of desperation to get the job done. Hamer and Gault kinda toddle along, as if they know it’s going to take two hours of movie-time to complete their mission so why rush?

It’s not helped by a seeming indecisiveness about what the movie wants to focus on. It’s torn between being a portrait of aged lawmen who may be past their time and a straight-up recounting of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. The former is a theme it only touches on in fits and spurts, often in scenes that feel shoehorned in just to address that subject. I’m not sure it had much to say about it either. It doesn’t come to the conclusion that the old ways are the best, or that they’re not relevant anymore; or that these guys still have their skills, or that they don’t anymore (early on there’s a scene where Costner realises he isn’t as accurate with a pistol as he used to be; that never comes up again) — they’re old, they’re tired, and… that’s it. As for the investigation, I presume it’s been depicted fairly accurately — the film has the feel of a story that’s been structured and paced this way because it’s based on truth. Of course, as we know from many other “true story” films, that’s a foolhardy assumption to make. Still, the final ambush was staged exactly where it really occurred out of a desire for historical accuracy, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that extends to the rest of the film.

Gunning for Bonnie and Clyde

One fascinating aspect of this particular case is how much the public were on the side of the criminals, and have been since (when The Highwaymen’s trailer debuted, I saw plenty of comments from disgruntled viewers hoping the film would acknowledge how underhanded the cops were in how they finally got Bonnie and Clyde! As if it somehow wasn’t fair to just shoot dead these crooks who had killed multiple other law enforcement officers, and innocent civilians, without similar fair warning). Perhaps unavoidable, the outlaws’ celebrity is another theme the film touches on, but only loosely. The populous should probably have been terrified of this viciously violent gang, but that they instead exalted them had a lot to do with the social situation at the time, i.e. the Great Depression, where the banks were the enemy, and Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks. Unfortunately, it’s again a thread that’s not fully unravelled; another facet the film notes is interesting but doesn’t bother to do a whole lot with.

Visually, there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s handsomely shot by John Schwartzman, with suitably open vistas that in themselves evoke a less urbanised time, where outlaws might still be hiding in the back of beyond. There are also scenes in towns and cities that clearly had enough budget to create a large-scale feel for the period. The film reportedly cost just under $50 million, the kind of budget movie studios don’t assign anymore, but it shows why it can pay off: this doesn’t need to be a $100 million blockbuster, but it does need enough cash to dress streets and extras for the setting. Netflix are one of the few still prepared to put money into such endeavours, and it is welcome.

Elsewhere, the film’s musical score was one of the main things that reminded me of Road to Perdition, so I was amused when I saw it credited to Thomas Newman, who also composed Perdition. I’ve commented before how I sometimes like his music but other times think he sounds a bit to similar to, well, himself (his work on Skyfall distracted me by sounding like what he did for A Series of Unfortunate Events), so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise.

On the road to somewhere. Probably Perdition.

Despite all those niggles I’ve listed, The Highwaymen is actually a solid viewing experience. It may not do anything original or execute elements as well as it could have, but Costner and Harrelson are engaging performers to follow around, and the story is inherently interesting enough to hold attention — it may’ve been slower than necessary, but I was never bored. The film has been described in some circles as a “dad movie”, a phrase that was also bandied around about another Netflix original earlier this month, Triple Frontier. I guess it’s being used in a reductive and dismissive sense, but, well, so what? I’m not a dad, nor of the age range being intimated by the expression, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a decent men-on-a-mission movie either.

3 out of 5

The Highwaymen is available on Netflix now.

Skyscraper (2018)

2019 #35
Rawson Marshall Thurber | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Cantonese & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

Skyscraper

If you were to describe a movie as “Die Hard in a building, from the director of Dodgeball”, you’d expect some kind of spoof. Not unreasonably: “Die Hard in an X” is (or was) a fairly common movie pitch, but the original is set in a building, so clearly someone’s making a joke (it’s me! And also everyone else who used this line to describe Skyscraper); and Dodgeball is, well, a comedy. Combine the two and you’ve definitely got a parody movie… right? Turns out, no.

That said, Skyscraper certainly owes a debt to its genre predecessors. It stars Dwayne Johnson as a security consultant employed to okay the world’s new tallest building for its imminent opening. When a group of terrorists break in and set the building on fire, endangering not only the rich dude behind the building’s construction but also Johnson’s family, it’s up to our guy — who used to be in the military or SWAT or something, I forget — to save the day. Plenty of running and jumping ensues, as you well know if you’ve seen that poster that went viral as people tried to work out if the angles add up. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t.

Beat THIS, Alex Honnold

That jumping scene does actually occur in the film, though. Does he make it? You guess. Does it make any more sense on screen? Eh, who knows? Frankly, who cares? Skyscraper is not a movie overly concerned with realism. Or originality. It’s not just the obvious stuff nabbed from Die Hard and/or The Towering Inferno (I’ve never seen the latter, but it’s been cited as an influence) — tropes and clichés abound. If you’re in a miserable mood, the endless parade of familiarity will likely frustrate any viewer. Conversely, if you’re in a forgiving frame of mind, it executes them at least as well as any other derivative action-adventure blockbuster.

The film doesn’t acknowledge or spoof these glaring rip-offs — as I said, it’s not actually a parody — but I think everyone involved was aware that it’s all a bit silly. Or maybe I’m being kind. Maybe I think the film is so obviously silly that I can’t believe they meant it to be read seriously. Either way, it’s at least as daft as you’d expect it to be, but that means it’s pretty fun if your expectations are right. It’s an undemanding 90-minutes-or-so of derring-do, where the scenarios are so extreme and OTT they can’t elicit much tension, but occasionally achieve a modicum of suspense nonetheless. And as so much of it is about doing things at great distances above the ground, it’s highly effective in 3D. One near-miss moment even made me gasp, so it was obviously doing something right with its sense of jeopardy.

3 out of 5

Skyscraper is available on Sky Cinema from today.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Sanjuro (1962)

aka Tsubaki Sanjûrô

2018 #139
Akira Kurosawa | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Sanjuro

Yojimbo was such a box office success that the studio requested a sequel. Director Akira Kurosawa obliged by reworking his next project, an adaptation of an unrelated story (Peaceful Days by Shūgorō Yamamoto), so that it featured Toshiro Mifune’s eponymous scheming samurai, Sanjuro. This follow-up came out just nine months later — and, by genuine coincidence, I happened to watch it nine months after I watched Yojimbo; and now, in a mix of tardiness and planning, I am also reviewing nine months after I reviewed Yojimbo. All of which signifies absolutely bugger all, but it happened so I’m noting it.

This time, Mifune’s anti-hero becomes involved with nine young samurai who suspect corruption among the local authorities. The youngsters are well-meaning but naive to a fault, and so Sanjuro decides to help them. That’s a real boon for them, as it turns out, because they’d all die several times over if it weren’t for him stopping them and guiding them in a better direction. As well as showing us what a smart operator Sanjuro is, it’s often quite humorous, something this film feels more inclined to than its predecessor. For instance, there are several great bits of funny business with an enemy guard they capture and stash in a closet, but who keeps being let out after he sort of converts to their side.

Sanjuro's sword

In the booklet accompanying Criterion’s DVD of the film, Michael Sragow writes that “in the Akira Kurosawa movie family tree, Sanjuro is the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many lighthearted younger siblings, it’s underrated.” I’d certainly agree. It doesn’t feel as significant as Yojimbo, probably because of the lighter tone (in my review, I described the previous film as “almost mercilessly nihilistic”) and a less fiddly story. But I found it more readily enjoyable than Yojimbo. It’s got a straightforward but clever plot, plenty of funny bits that don’t undermine the rest, and some decent bursts of action. It’s also just as well-made, particularly the cinematography, which is beautifully composed and framed by DPs Fukuzô Koizumi and Takao Saitô.

The making-of documentary that accompanies Sanjuro begins with Kurosawa stating that “a truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There’s nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand.” I can think of few better quotes to describe Sanjuro, which is a truly good movie.

5 out of 5