It’s been a draining time at the flicks of late. Shall we get into it? A warning that, as ever, some of the reviews below may allude to plot points and/or the fate of characters. They might not of course.
There was much excitement amongst fans of Fox’s Predator franchise when Shane Black was announced as the writer/director of the latest unwanted sequel. He’d appeared in the 1987 movie; he wrote the jokes. He was the guy who got it. But what is it? Well, it turns out – not much. Predator is an oddball franchise; a set of movies built around an alien antagonist that was only designed as a suitably larger than life obstacle for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first place. What, beyond that, is the Predator’s appeal? Black’s revival fails to show us. It’s a disjointed, slipshod affair, edited (or rather re-edited) in an all-weekend cocaine frenzy. There’s a lot of late ‘80’s style in evidence – the emphasis on of a group of loose talking, quippy meatheads, a beautiful lady scientist, and an ultra-smart but impossibly boring kid. Yet beyond the rag-tag ensemble and gleeful b-movie violence of yore, Black’s new story makes no sense – the Predator coming to Earth to protect us, only to forget itself and go on a killing spree. The end intrigues but by then it’s too late – the lack of coherence has blown a hole in the movie’s chest. Adding to the sense this is a film that’s been gathering dust on a shelf since 1991 is lead lunk Boyd Holbrook, a dead-ringer for that mainstay of cheap Canon action movies, Michael Dudikoff. But The Predator cost $80m, not the $8 Canon would have spent. That so much could be spunked on a low-rent sci-fi shocker is the most modern thing about this doomed sequel.
It’s tempting to ask, how many Conjuring fans really wanted a Nun prequel (answer none, geddit?) but here it is anyway. Largely unburdened by the need to connect directly with the narrative of James Wan’s movies, in contrast with the underpowered Annabelle prequels, The Nun can revel in its own world of Hammer-inspired camp gothic horror. This includes smoke-filled graveyards, Nazi bombs blowing open a passage to Hell, the blood of Jesus Christ stored inside something resembling Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade, and a candle-lit Romanian abbey full of shivering sisters. What’s conjured this time around isn’t so much fear, for there’s only so many times the haunted house (or castle) bag of tricks can be deployed before it becomes a sack of clichés, rather atmosphere, and a playful sense of the absurd. The movie’s best joke, that the events depicted are based on real events, gets funnier with each elaborate set piece, culminating in a little retconning to tie the film to its parent pictures.
If you saw Unfriended you had every reason to fear this social media thriller, in which fake Sulu John Cho, er, searches for his missing teenage daughter by delving into her digital life. There, playing to every parent’s worst fears, he learns that his girl had contacts and feelings he knew nothing about, and much probing of her interactive applications ensues. This might have been a cynical and cheap attempt at zeitgeistian relevance, but Searching is a well plotted thriller with meticulous attention to detail (the computer desktops and internet browser activity in question is animated rather than captured, with absolute fidelity). There’s a Hitchcockian understanding of the innate pleasures in voyeurism here, as well as a subtle critique of user culture – the selective sourcing of media, the predilection for buying into sensationalist hype, trolling, etc. It’s a movie that challenges you to anticipate plot twists right to the end, while creating characters you care about, despite the lack of traditional scenes. Further proof that gimmickry can work when employed with intelligence.
Idris Elba’s directorial debut is a lavishly shot, if relatively simplistic story of a Jamaican gangster plying his wares in ‘80’s London. Backed by a fine sense of period detail and a pounding reggae score, the movie brims with colour and atmosphere, and just occasionally, menace. Stephen Graham’s conspicuously white cockney fixer, who relates to his Jamaican clients by employing their patois, is both intimidating and hilarious in a role that in lesser hands might have shredded the movie’s dramatic credibility. Aml Ameen, as the boy who falls in with a drug dealing gang, only to seize the Thatcherite opportunity to make his own money, is engaging in the lead. Not much to write home about, which is a pity for a film about emigres, but compelling while it lasts.
King of Thieves
British cinema’s long standing tradition of mythologizing cockney criminal activity continues with this re-telling of the (ultimately) failed 2015 Hatton Garden heist, in which a group of aging thieves stole £15m worth of jewels from a set of subterranean safe deposit boxes. Heading up this geriatric Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is the barely animate husk of Michael Caine; the audience’s fears for his long term health building throughout. His performance, meandering, slow, but occasionally punctuated with flashes of style and raw energy, is the story of the movie. A tighter, more focused retelling could have been rather wonderful, perhaps with the gang’s modern day heist contrasted with their grittier, violent past – something that’s alluded to here, but not built upon sufficiently to imbue the old men rasping through this last hurrah with the menace or pathos their past lives might have conferred. The audience is asked to settle for a movie that’s interested in eliciting nothing more than their titters and pity. Fair, perhaps, but not the dynamic and psychologically dense movie treatment that might have been.
Spike Lee’s latest joint is the mostly true story of a ‘70’s black police officer who, with the help of his white (Jewish) partner, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan – fooling none other than racist-in-chief and modern day Trump supporter, David Duke. The parallels between the seemingly archaic political climate depicted here and what’s subsequently re-emerged in Trump’s America, is the polemical bent of Lee’s film; a movie that riffs on Blaxploitation and, no pun intended, black comedy, until a story breaking epilogue; a sobering, effective hard cut to the present with footage of Charlottesville and the real life Duke praising Trump’s false equivocation of racist thugs and protestors. Did a movie that makes its political points vividly need this literal ending? Probably not, but Lee might argue, with some justification, that if it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying again in bold.
The Equaliser 2
Denzel Washington’s first stint as the Equaliser didn’t much resemble the TV series made famous by Edward Woodward. However, though brutal and uncompromising, befitting its lead, it did end on a note that suggested a sequel would adopt the show’s traditional format – those in need contacting Robert McCall for help. It’s odd then, to discover Equaliser 2 does no such thing – McCall apparently equalising on his own initiative, sometimes going as far as Turkey to do so, other times content to drive an Uber and see what trouble ends up in his back seat. This is preamble to the movie’s A-story that digs up McCall’s old military connections and involves him in a nebulous conspiracy that results in the death of his old friend. What we get is another nasty, bone dry revenge thriller in which the coming storm of Washington’s wrath is literalised as an on screen weather event. It’s gripping, like the first movie, but plot details are more opaque this time around, with director Antoine Fuqua more interested in McCall’s moral code than telling a story with a spine. Washington’s an intense presence as ever, but he looks beaten throughout – an inch away from putting a gun in his mouth. If he returns to equalise a third time perhaps a formula can be found that will allow some humour and playfulness to permeate the photographic and existential gloom.
Peter Berg continues his long and fruitless association with Mark Wahlberg in this “Marky Marked for Death” action thriller, about an elite covert team within the US intelligence framework, whose job it is to commit off-book infiltrations and eliminations. When a double agent sidles up to the American embassy in Indonesia with a hard drive containing information on a dirty bomb, he offers to unlock the data in exchange for safe passage to the US, meaning a besieged escort to the airport with the package’s former colleagues in pursuit. What ensues is a frenzied assault on the senses, in which the dark pairing of demented editing and Wahlberg’s testosteronic shtick, all preening and pith, make for an exhausting, sometimes confusing spectacle. The movie plays like the choppy nightmare of a disturbed drunk; a film where pauses for breath, humour in place of snark, and the traditional framing of action – that is, fully orientated and artistically staged, would have made all the difference. The end threatens a sequel but it’s hard to see who would be interested, given this first chapter is such a draining watch.
The House with a Clock in its Walls
Eli Roth’s Amblin movie, which might have been dubbed warlock and a half, is an attempt to marry his macabre sensibility with the part whimsical, part horrific Spielbergian entertainments of old. In case we haven’t got the point, Roth’s 1955 set fantasy contains multiple allusions to Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, pitching his fantasy as a film full of wonder and mischief, built on the relationship between a kid and his older, eccentric mentor. It doesn’t amount to much, particularly in a languid first half, but later, when the plot’s more eccentric complications start to pay off, there’s spirited performances from Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Kyle MacLachlan, and a sense of fun that is indeed old school, and true to the Amblin brand. There’s unfortunate nods to the demographic sensibility that shapes modern screenplays – scatological humour for example, but inventive production design and an engaging premise ultimately win out.
A Simple Favour
One imagines it was the lifestyle porn and female protagonists/antagonists, that attracted Paul Feig to Darcy Bell’s novel about an apple pie single mother who makes a rich bitch friend, only for her to disappear suddenly, leaving her in a commanding position with her former pal’s sexy husband and palatial home. I can’t speak to the tone of the source novel, but Feig’s movie plays like a sometimes camp, lightweight retelling of Gone Girl, that straddles both thriller and black comic territory without ever quite putting down roots in either. Feig succeeds in extracting maximum kook from Anna Kendrick, and getting a great, hardnosed turn out of Blake Lively as the disappeared fashion marketing executive whose absence fuels a noir-like tale of deception and manipulation. But a movie that opts for the indeterminate territory between drama and broad humour has a job selling its credentials in either category. A Simple Favour is matter-of-fact when it should be tense, silly when it should be witty. For the third time in a row, Feig has made a movie in which straight heterosexual men are framed as either predatory, duplicitous or both. However, unlike his previous – the pop cultural vandalising remake of Ghostbusters, the material here is a far better fit for Feig’s brand of waspish flamboyance. A diet thriller, if you will, for when the prospect of full fat murder and intrigue feels like too much of a downer.