London Has Fallen (2016)

2017 #14
Babak Najafi | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Bulgaria / English, Italian, French & Japanese | 15 / R

London Has Fallen

The unwanted sequel to the less-good of 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” double bill sets its rip-off sights lower: the entire plot feels rehashed from a weak season of 24. It may as well begin with a gravelly-toned voiceover informing us that “the following takes place between 9AM and 9PM Greenwich Mean Time.” Fortunately, events don’t occur in real time.

Those events take place in the wake of the British Prime Minister’s unexpected death. Granted a state funeral, the American President (Aaron Eckhart) is naturally in attendance, along with 39 other world leaders — most of whom are suddenly wiped out in a series of terrorist attacks. POTUS’s Secret Service chum (Gerard Butler) must get him out of the embattled capital, away from an enemy who seems to have foreseen their every move.

From there, the film is a relentless assault on the notion of good filmmaking. The narrative is so poorly structured that it doesn’t feel like there’s a climax — it’s only apparent with hindsight that what seemed like the back-half of Act 2 is actually meant to be the big finale. The main villain is only dealt with in a tacked-on coda; so too is the obligatory mole, whose presence appears to be solely motivated by a futile attempt to plug plot holes.

Going Underground

The dialogue is horrendous (“You should have let us kill him quickly, because now… we’re going to kill him slowly”) and the CGI is ceaselessly cheap — shots of the various terrorist attacks wouldn’t look out of place in a Sharknado movie. A single-take action sequence feels like it should be exciting filmmaking, but is actually more like watching someone else play a video game.

Even with that, London Has Fallen does just about pass muster as a brains-off actioner, in the truest sense of the term: you’ll need to switch your brain off to endure the rampant xenophobia and American flag-waving.

God, I bet Trump loves this movie.

2 out of 5

London Has Fallen featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Hummingbird (2013)

aka Redemption

2015 #67
Steven Knight | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

HummingbirdSteven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and Peaky Blinders — and, latterly, writer-director of “Tom Hardy driving on the phone” thriller Locke — made his directorial debut with this Jason Statham thriller that isn’t.

The Stath plays Joey, a soldier who did something terrible in Afghanistan that landed him in a mental health unit in London awaiting court martial, from which he escapes into homelessness. Running from some attackers, he stumbles into a plush flat that’s vacant for the summer. Using his ‘borrowed’ wealth, he strikes up a friendship with Cristina (Agata Buzek), the nun who runs his old soup kitchen, gets a job with Chinese gangsters, and sets about finding out what happened to his friend from the street.

Outlined as just a plot, Hummingbird might sound like your standard Statham action-thriller. It really isn’t. Knight’s focus is primarily on the relationship between Joey and Cristina, two people who are both lost, struggling with events from their past, trying to help people, in search of something. It’s a bigger acting challenge than Statham usually has to face. To be honest, he’s probably not wholly up to the task, but he makes a good fist of it. Buzek has a more striking arc, in some respects, and navigates it subtly but successfully. The crime storyline, in particular Joey’s investigations into the fate of his friend, are a frame on which to hang the development of these people.

Sad StathamThe film’s problem, perhaps, is that it slips a little between two stools. It’s certainly not action-packed enough to appeal to a good deal of Statham’s fanbase — the one or two instances of him kicking ass are very much asides. On the flipside, it may not commit to the character drama fully enough to satiate the needs of that kind of viewer. However, for anyone at peace with those two apparently-disparate styles — like, well, me — Hummingbird will be a more satisfying experience.

4 out of 5

Last Passenger (2013)

2015 #6
Omid Nooshin | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last PassengerIf you’ve ever found a late-night train commute dull, this single-location thriller may make you rethink any complaints. Half-a-dozen people travelling from London to Tunbridge Wells find their train speeding out of control. It’s up to them to discover what’s happening and how to stop it.

Starting as character-driven slow-burn, but building to suitable levels of adrenaline-generation, some of the characters may be a little generic, but then it’s a genre movie. Anyone after answers to why this is happening will be disappointed, but that’s not the point; indeed, it’s refreshing to leave the villain unexplored.

An effective thrillride (literally).

4 out of 5

Furious 6 (2013)

aka Fast & Furious 6

2014 #106
Justin Lin | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Furious 6Fast Five’s kinda-villain, supercop Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), tracks down our band of car-driving criminal-heroes to inform Dom (Vin Diesel) that former girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who apparently died in the fourth film, is actually alive and working with a gang of super-criminals in London — which is Hobbs’ leverage to get Dom, Brian (Paul Walker) and the rest of the gang to come out of retirement to help catch said crims.

Cue two hours in which cars drive fast, people punch each other, and things blow up. Furious 6 (as it’s called on screen, to forcefully indicate a barely-existent “Part Two”-ness with the previous film) doesn’t ask much of you as a viewer, and doesn’t give you much back either — which is fair enough, in its own way. In other ways, it’s a disappointment.

The last film broke the diminishing-returns curve the franchise was on, but Furious 6 slots right back into it. It’s kinda tricky to pinpoint why Fast Five was so entertaining and this one isn’t. I think it just takes things too far. Firstly, the team-up novelty of the fifth film is now the series’ modus operandi, which makes it less special. Worse, there’s a muddled plot (Brian goes back to LA to meet someone in prison for no particularly good reason) and OTT action sequences. Five had the latter too — dragging a safe round the streets of Rio! — but 6 goes too far beyond. In transitioning from “street racing franchise” to “heist franchise (with cars)”, Fast & Furious has lost sight of its roots and become just another overblown action series.

Special delivery... of muscles!For all the intent of this being “Part 2 of 2”, there’s a post-credits tease which sets up the next film’s villain: the brother of this film’s villain! So, what, this is “Part 2 of 3” now? Or, more likely, they’ve adopted the modern movie franchise format of a never-ending series of closely-connected narratives; essentially, a TV series, only with bigger budgets and just one instalment every other year. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but go too far down this route and you end up with films so engrossed in their own years-long mythology that your viewers forget why everything’s happening. Just look at the Saw movies, which had to start building “previously on”-style flashbacks into their editing. Let’s hope Fast & Furious doesn’t start requiring the same — to this point, at least, the primary story of each film has thankfully been established and resolved between the Universal logo and the credits scroll.

Also on the bright side, the action sequences aren’t over-CGI’d. There’s definitely some of that in play, most obviously during the climax (with its never-ending runway), but a lot of the car stunts throughout the film look to have been done for real. Always preferable. As for the Old Blighty setting, although the film does indulge in some tourists-will-recognise-this views of London, it’s not as bad as most Hollywood versions of the city — or British versions, if you look at the work of Richard Curtis & co. Call that a car?There’s plenty of backstreet, underground, grim-and-gritty bits on display here — entirely appropriate given the characters’ street-racing roots and criminal know-how. Still, these are little more than cosmetic bonuses.

Not the worst of the franchise, though certainly not the best, Furious 6 is an overcooked extravaganza that goes on at least one action sequence too long.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

2010 #70
Fritz Lang | 83 mins | TV | PG

Ministry of FearI like cake. It’s all soft and sweet and tasty. But I don’t like cake as much as Stephen Neale, the protagonist of Ministry of Fear.

Neale (played by Ray Milland) likes cake so much that, as soon as he’s released from an asylum at the film’s start, he goes almost directly to a nearby fête to win a cake. And win it he does… though as he leaves with his prize, he’s told he didn’t win it after all. But Neale loves cake so much that he pays them off so he can keep it. Then he gets on a train to London — and he loves cake so much, he can’t resist tucking in straight away. At least he’s kind enough to give a piece to the blind man who shares the car with him. Except the blind man whacks Neale over the head, steals the cake and jumps off the (fortunately, stationary) train with it. Not because he loves cake too, but we’ll come to that.

But the blind man — who isn’t actually blind, as you may have guessed — hasn’t counted on just how much Neale loves cake. He jumps off the train too, giving chase. The not-blind blind man shoots at him, but that’s not enough to deter Neale from cake. It’s only when a Nazi bomb drops on the cake, destroying it (and the not-blind blind man) that Neale finally gives up. And even then he goes back to look for the cake later in the film.

I think he's about to cut the cake...Ministry of Fear isn’t really about cake, but the opening 20 minutes or so plays out more or less as above and it is rather amusing. Less amusing — and, in fact, part of the film’s biggest problem — is a ‘humorous’ epilogue that returns to the cake theme. I found it hilariously funny, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The other part of the problem is the abrupt ending that immediately precedes this brief coda. On the bright side, everything is resolved and you can imagine the post-climax resolution scene for yourself, but it still leaves the tale’s telling cut short.

To say too much about what Ministry of Fear is actually about would ruin it, which I don’t want to do because in fact it’s a great twisty little thriller, a rather Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ tale with a baked MacGuffin. You might need a decent suspension of disbelief to get through it, as Neale races round London trying to find out the truth behind the activities of a wartime charity and its army of little old dears, but doing so rewards with a tale where you can never be sure who is on whose side and where any character will end up.

Director Fritz Lang brings his customary expertise to proceedings, with several shots and sequences worthy of appreciation in their own right. Nazi drone, perhapsThe train cake theft and chase, for instance, could be thoroughly laughable thanks to the cake element and what’s clearly a studio-built wood/wasteland, but it’s atmospherically shot and, in its main burst of genius, scored only by the drone of a Nazi air raid taking place overhead. It makes for a more tense and effective soundtrack than most musical scores manage.

In spite of the potentially laughable opening and the need to suspend one’s disbelief — or, perhaps, because of it — Ministry of Fear is a most enjoyable wartime film noir in a Hitchockian mould.

4 out of 5

Eastern Promises (2007)

2009 #32
David Cronenberg | 97 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Eastern PromisesArguably most famous for his horror films of the ’80s (though a couple of his ’90s efforts could stake a claim), director David Cronenberg widened his appeal somewhat with the excellent crime thriller A History of Violence. Here he reunites with star Viggo Mortensen for another grim tale, switching the bright searing heat of the American Midwest for the rain-drenched nighttime streets of our fair capital.

Despite some similarities in plot and theme, Eastern Promises failed to engage me in the same way as the earlier effort. Perhaps this is because it plays tag with its central character, beginning with Naomi Watts’ do-gooder nurse before shifting focus to Mortensen’s mafia chauffeur with nary a blink. It’s an unusual transition, and consequently it’s hard to tell whether it’s skillful writing or a fortuitous accident that it comes off seamlessly. One theoretical screenwriting argument would have it that the film is actually all about Christine, the baby, and that’s why it works, but that feels a little too pretentious to engage with now.

Tied around the baby’s fate, screenwriter Steven Knight factors in some appropriately dark elements, like white slavery or the relocated criminal underworld that currently operates in the UK. Though these are handled with a certain amount of care, they’ve been covered in greater depth elsewhere (the excellent miniseries Sex Traffic, for example) and here are reduced to pawns in a different tale. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but remembering the detail from other such dramas can leave the topics’ inclusion here feeling lightweight.

Elsewhere, the screenplay suffers from some awkward dialogue exchanges and barely credible logic contrivances being used to jump-start the plot. Most of these come from Watts’ character, who seems too competent for much of the film to pass off as a naïve fool at its start. This may be Watts’ fault, playing her as intelligent when a naïve approach might render her actions more believable, but it seems cruel to lay the blame with her as she’s very strong all round. Armin Mueller-Stahl also gives his typically accomplished turn in his typically key supporting role.

Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated performance is the focus, however. Apparently thoroughly immersed in the role, he gives a distinguished performance throughout and is central to what are by far the film’s most memorable moments: a nude steam baths fight, which has become justifiably infamous (I suspect for the “nude” part, but it’s the “fight” that deserves it), and a game-changing twist, that I sadly had ruined in advance, though there are plenty of clues scattered along the way.

By its end, Eastern Promises has the feel of the first part of something bigger: while the story of the baby is resolved, many others are left open. Unresolved threads aren’t always a problem, but it feels like Cronenberg has more to say in this world. So it’s nice to know a sequel is possibly in the works, because Eastern Promises has the potential to be a Hobbit to some Russian mafia epic’s Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, a similarly low-key follow-up would be just as appropriate.

Though it failed to capture me as much as A History of Violence, possibly due to too-raised expectations, Eastern Promises has the potential to grow with repeated viewings. And either type of continuation would be most welcome.

4 out of 5

Unfortunately, plans for a sequel ultimately fell apart in 2012. Some more details can be read here.

Inside-Out (1999)

2008 #66a
Tom & Charles Guard | 7 mins | DVD | 12

This charming little short stars Simon McBurney as a hapless market researcher on a busy London street, failing to get a single passerby to complete his survey — perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is making a market researcher sympathetic. Anyway, he’s quietly observed by a woman, played by Lena Headey (yup, Mrs. Leonidas and the new Sarah Connor [and now Cersei Lannister, of course]), who’s dressing the window of a clothing/department store on the street. She notices his failed attempts, which amuse her; he notices her laughing, and begins to muck around to entertain her.

It’s a simple premise, but one that’s executed with comedic flair and a surprising amount of emotion. The music and lack of dialogue evoke an old-ish French mime comedy, making a nice contrast with the modern-day London setting, but it’s the relationship that silently develops between the two characters that provides the heart around the humour. And the ending, as carefully constructed as any moment of humour in the short, is painfully heartbreaking.

However many times you might want to re-watch this — and I think you would want to — you’ll always wish for the same outcome, and always be let down. It’s a sweet kind of pain and longing that, in spite of that French style, is very British.

4 out of 5

This short is available on the Cinema16: British Short Films DVD, and online free at Total Short Films or YouTube.