A sci-fi thriller half a mess and half an interesting exercise in style. That it comes from Duncan Jones, the filmmaker responsible for Moon, Source Code, and, yes, Warcraft, hopes were high this would be a strong genre entry, but Mute never hits above its pulpy elements.
We’re in future Berlin, which looks remarkably like Blade Runner and that other recent science fiction property on Netflix, Altered Carbon. Leo (Alexander Skarsgaard) can’t speak—a thematic element with next to no payoff—but still manages to convey a deep emotional core. He and his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), work at a sleazy nightclub, frequented by a pair of black market American surgeons—Justin Theroux in a terrible blonde wig, and Paul Rudd, playing against type with an awesome 1970s moustache. When Naadirah disappears, Leo digs into the Berlin underworld, putting him on a path that intersects with gangsters, prostitutes, and those scummy surgeons on their own trip.
Jones serves up a mystery in a future landscape with plenty to look at, including retro-futurist bowling alleys, libraries, nighttime flying cars, and drone food deliveries. It’s gorgeous and immersive. The problem here is we spend a little too much time with Theroux and Rudd, whose jovial bro-ery barely masks a queasy darkness. Skarsgaard gives this thing its heart, but those other guys end up leaving you feeling like you need a shower.
Michael Apted is an award-winning filmmaker responsible for the Up series of documentaries, the quality thrillers Gorky Park and Enigma, as well as the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough, His presence directing a London-set spy drama with a quality cast (Noomi Rapace, Toni Colette, John Malkovich, Michael Douglas, and, uh, Orlando Bloom) and a Black List script makes Unlocked better than promising. More’s the shame then that despite a satisfyingly lean and twisty plot nicely utilizing a multiethnic supporting cast and East End locations, this is a picture probably only of interest to real espionage genre addicts like myself.
Rapace is a CIA analyst in London brought into the field to interrogate a terrorist suspect and who, accordingly, is drawn into a much deeper conspiracy involving a terrible viral weapon. I like the unexpected reveals, and there are at least a couple of good scenes with this A-List cast, like when spymasters Colette and Malkovich gripe at each other over Skype, and Colette reveals a key piece of backstory to Rapace.
But there are two serious debits: One is Bloom, whose character is ridiculous, implausibly brought into the story and kept on for too long with a thread of pure nonsense. The second, I’m gutted to report, is Apted, who directs the film with no sense of style. Following the kinetic efforts of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, action sequences in these kinds of pictures need to be a lot more engaging than they are here, and a clever script is no substitute for a filmmaker who shows no real enthusiasm for the material.
Gerald’s Game (2017)
The length and breadth of Stephen King’s creative output continues to be a goldmine for feature film adaptations, while the end results are hit and miss. Here horror director Mike Flanagan allows the terminally under-appreciated Carla Gugino to shine in a lead role, which makes this a King adaptation worth watching. She’s an unhappy wife accompanying her husband (Bruce Greenwood, keeping remarkably fit for an older guy) to a summer cottage retreat. In the midst of a bondage game he dies, leaving her handcuffed to the bed. There she hallucinates, flashes back to a childhood summer with a creepy, manipulative father (Henry Thomas, who for me will always be Elliot missing ET), and debates with the ghost of her dead husband and her own critical self. There’s a strong theme of self-empowerment and the damage men do to girls and women, but it’s a theatrical exercise that never quite connects the dots as a feature film. That’s not to say the performances aren’t impressive, or the gore, when it comes, isn’t skin-crawlingly difficult to watch. But things are askew; a solar eclipse where the sun is in the wrong place in the sky, a peculiar coda about a mystery gargoyle doesn’t work, and the constant wondering why she didn’t try to get her legs under her and break the bed.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
Having missed this in cinemas, I caught up to it on an airplane. I have the lowest possible expectations for movies I watch on planes—I’m uncomfortable and usually sleep-deprived, so I just need something to be passably entertaining. And, whaddaya know, The Hitman’s Bodyguard delivered to my measly needs, and then some. The film features two of the most charismatic and funny leading men around—Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, with recent Oscar-winner Gary Oldman as an Eastern European baddie. Bryce (Reynolds) was once a best-in-the-business security agent until his expensive client was killed by a long distance sniper. Now he gets the shit jobs, like having to protect this loudmouthed hitman, Kincaid. This violent and knuckle-headed stuff is in a style that went out in the ’90s with the direct-to-video market. It could be that’s partly why I enjoyed it, a lack of pretension to be anything more than it is, coupled with gags like this: Bryce: “It’s my job to keep you out of harms way.” Kincaid: “Shit, motherfucker. I am harm’s way.”
Strange Days (1995)
There was a time when Kathryn Bigelow was the only woman in Hollywood consistently directing big-budget genre film. With Near Dark, Blue Steel, and Point Break on her resume, she tapped into pre-millennial tension with this dystopic science-fiction picture, written by Jay Cocks and her ex, James Cameron. It’s a bleak and violent drama—the street scenes feel like shades of Bigelow’s film from last summer, Detroit.
It’s the last days of the century and people are rioting. With Skunk Anansi on the soundtrack, there’s a lot here that feels of a time and a lot that feels deeply and awfully prophetic. The fresh-faced Ralph Fiennes is Lenny Nero, a fast talker who deals in discs of human experience recorded directly from people’s heads. He’s only somewhat redeemed by his friends, Mace (a potent Angela Bassett) and Max (Tom Sizemore), both of whom he needs when he gets a recording of the rape and murder of a women he knows. Lenny’s real weakness is his obsession with Juliette Lewis, a singer with a fondness for PJ Harvey, but she’s shacked up with Michael Wincott, whose evil growl I miss from his ’90s character work.
This is messy stuff, with a plot that takes 45 minutes to kick in— time it could’ve lost with some judicious editing—but when it works it delivers solid action, compelling conspiracy, and an unrelenting sleazy glamour that feels quintessentially 1990s.
Sicario wasn’t a film that felt likely to get a sequel, or needed one.
It’s a cold, classic thriller, told on both sides of the US-Mexico border, where a Department of Justice/CIA task force brings aboard an FBI agent working in Arizona to help them play fast and loose with the drug war’s rules of engagement. As that agent, Kate (Emily Blunt) is our eyes and ears, our access point to this world of off-the-books chaos. It’s miserably plausible, this war, and the journey Kate carries us on is both beautiful and terrifying, jarring us out of our comfortable understanding of both the rule of law and the structure of screenwriting—handing over the film’s lead in the third act to a supporting character.
Since this film, director Denis Villeneuve has made two more amazing, Oscar-nominated pictures—Arrival and Blade Runner 2049—screenwriter Taylor Sheridan was Oscar-nominated for his next picture, Hell Or High Water, DP Roger Deakins—who photographs the desert like no one else— finally won an Oscar for his work on Blade Runner, supporting actor Daniel Kaluuya was nominated for Best Actor on Get Out, and Jon Bernthal has been cast in simply everything. All parts of this film bleeds excellence.
But that still doesn’t mean it needed a sequel, and the fact that Villeneuve isn’t part of Sicario: Day Of The Soldado doesn’t bode too well, but Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are on board. We’ll see come the end of June. Until then, the original is very much worth revisiting.
Our Man Flint (1966)
Imagine an American James Bond, played more for laughs. That’s a starting point for Our Man Flint—and, for that matter, the recent comedic spy sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Flint was a big-budget hit back in 1966, starring James Coburn as a renaissance-man cum super-spy, retired, who gets the call to come back to work when a group of eco-terrorist scientists threaten to destroy the earth with weather weapons. While the script and characters aren’t wildly engaging, it’s recommended for the spectacularly dated, eye-popping ’60s sets and set-pieces, Flint’s begrudging boss, played by Lee J. Cobb, and the femme fatale, Gila Golan, who makes an impression.
Michael Mann is a favourite filmmaker of mine, responsible for modern classics like The Insider, Last Of The Mohicans, Heat, Collateral, and Manhunter. Unfortunately, his most recent couple of features, Public Enemies and Blackhat haven’t set the world alight. He still has remarkable stylistic and conceptual control, but I feel like his general interest in human beings has diminished. What he really got wrong here is the casting, choosing Chris Hemsworth in the lead. The guy is versatile, from action hero to comedic roles, but computer nerd is a bridge too far.
So, why would I recommend it? For all the other things Mann does so well: The use of music, of location, the way he lights his scenes, the action sequences, the way he stages and shoots—it’s hypnotic and otherworldly.
Taylor Sheridan’s (of Sicario and Hell Or High Water) mountain thriller has a lot going for it—great use of locations, a game cast including two Avengers, and a genre structure that also incorporates social justice notes that would be unlikely in most films of this sort. I don’t think he’s yet as gifted a director as he is a screenwriter, but Wind River has grit and shows promise.
A film I was originally a little ambivalent about, but it’s haunted me in the months since I’ve seen it. The first feature by film essayist Kogonada, it tells the story of a businessman (John Cho) forced to stick around a small city in Indiana due to the illness of his father, with whom he has a frosty relationship. He strikes up a friendship with a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) at a crossroads in her life.
There’s not a lot more to it than that, aside from the visuals—a love of the mid-century modern architecture and the framing of those buildings. It’s a very talky, airy film. The formality bothered me at first, but the film’s style worked into my subconscious in a way that kept coming back, days and weeks later. This is a special film, though it might not register as such right away.