Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Coming soon: The James Bond Cocktail Hour podcast

Despite my attempts to make it as broad a church as possible, The Midnight Ramble is known for a few familiar themes: Action movies, weirdo genre flicks, RnB music and James Bond. 

At the end of May, you will be able to hear my ramblings on The James Bond Cocktail Hour, a  podcast covering the full gamut of everything James Bond: the books, the movies, the games, the parodies and everything in between.

Every episode we will cover one book and one of the movies - now there are more books than movies, but never fear, we are going to jazz things up by reviewing other topics like the video games, the comics and the various parodies (Messers Flint, Helm, Powers and OSS 117) that have popped up throughout the years.

I'll drop more details as we get closer to launching. In the meantime, you can peruse my old Bond reviews.

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill


Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Welcome to Gondwana (dir. Mamane, 2016)

In order to legitimise his hold on power, Gondwana's long-serving president acquiesces to a UN observer mission to monitor the latest election. The youngest and most idealistic member of the team, Julien (Antoine Gouy), falls for Betty (Prudence Maidou), a member of the activist group Mungaji (We're fed up'), who questions his beliefs and forces him to confront the hypocrisy of western intervention in Africa.

When he accidentally uncovers the government's plot to rig the election with international backing, Julien finds himself drawn into Betty's fight to free her country from the dictator's grasp.

Niger-born comedian Mamane's first movie Welcome to Gondwana is a dark comedy about Africa's relationship with the (western) international community.  A portmanteau of tactics and episodes from various rigged elections, the movie is a hilarious subversion of the white saviour narratives Hollywood releases around Oscar season.

It is s fascinating viewing experience because Julien is the entry point, but his agency is never privileged over anyone else's. Despite being our 'protagonist', Julien is constantly reacting to events and people around him - he is never an active participant in advancing the plot, at least until the climax. He is just a well-intentioned but ignorant white man stumbling into a situation he cannot understand without making (a lot of) mistakes.  

This is a movie about Western colonialism, and how the economies of the former coloniser remain intertwined with their former colonies, perpetuating their power imbalance and preventing the democratic reforms that Julien, our 'hero', believes he is helping to secure.

While Julien and Betty's relationship forms the basis of the movie's critique, the supporting cast of incompetents provide the film's biggest laughs. The UN team's government minders, Gohou (Michel Gohou) and Digbeu (Digbeu Cravate) 
Gohou and Digbeu 
Their ongoing argument about what the term 'international community' means is brilliant, as Julien and his gormless boss Frederic Delaville (Antoine Dulery) are increasingly incapable of providing counter-arguments to the duo's paranoia about Western intentions and hypocrisy in thinking they can be the bastions of human rights.

On the surface, these characters are engaging in a game of 'whataboutism' to discredit the UN and show their support for the government. But they are also puncturing the idea that the Western Powers underwriting the mission are paragons of virtue - like the president of Gondwana, they are more concerned with maintaining the status quo so that they can take resources and capital out of the country, rather than serving the people.

Frederic Delaville
No one exemplifies the pointlessness of the UN mission more than Dulery's Delaville. A French MP who is more concerned with winning his next election than ensuring the legitimacy of this one, he spends the movie trying to sell his region's only major agricultural product, white asparagus. 

In this movie, none of the movie's supposed heroes are doing anything in Gondwana for the reasons they are ostensibly there: the French want to put an offical stamp on the Gondwanan president's reign so that they can maintain the economic benefits; the UN team are more interested in the size of their hotel rooms; and Julien is no different - he becomes interested in Gondwanan independence because he fancies Betty.

About halfway into the movie, I became depressed. After last year's festival, where I was unable to find the films on any kind of home media, going to these movies feels weirdly precious. I am really hoping this movie finds its way onto Netflix, because it is really great (and I want to watch it again) 

The movie manages to be extremely specific and incisive, yet it never feels niche - I saw the movie with a crowd of mostly old white people and they were laughing pretty hard throughout. If you can find it, Welcome to Gondwana is a fun, smart comedy that deserves a wide audience.

Friday, 20 April 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Navy Seals (dir. Lewis Teague, 1990)

During a rescue mission in the Middle East, a Navy SEAL (Michael Beihn) discovers a consignment of Stinger missiles but prioritises the mission over destroying them. When a terrorist group starts using the missiles, he becomes obsessed with hunting them down and destroying them before more innocent people are killed.

This movie comes from an era of action movies that I love, with certain qualifications. When you watch an 80s action movie, you expect a certain level of sexism, racism and right-wing paranoia underpinning the whole thing. Navy SEALS makes two mistakes which mean these elements are front and centre, which makes it hard to watch.

The first problem is that as an action movie, Navy SEALS is not good enough to take as a brainless action movie. Director Lewis Teague never has a handle on how to set up or shoot a set piece. Wide shots are from the wrong angle, the lighting is too bright and the editing is just clumsy.

The first action sequence, in which our 'heroes' smash into the bad guys' hideout and blow them away is ridiculously confusing. We start with a tight shot of a SEAL crashing through a window, followed by a series of clumsily edited shots showing the SEALS shooting the villains. All this action could have been covered in a wide shot that allowed the viewer to get a sense of the geography, but instead it is over-cut and shot from angles that do not allow the viewer to piece it together.

Later sequences, such as the SEALS rescuing a boatload of hostages, and the finale in Beirut, are better, but suffer from a lack of obvious stakes. The big problem is that - despite my plot synopsis - the movie does not really have a clear plot.

We get introduced to the villain and his missiles in the first mission, but then it takes the rest of the movie for this threat to really crystallise. We never see the missiles used on anything, just a passing news report, and the missions in between never feel that connected to the central threat.

And then there are the stateside scenes...

I mean, what is going on here? It feels like an attempt to make these guys feel like friends ala Top Gun, but they either end up coming off as clowns (like the above clip) or straight-up high school bullies. Charlie Sheen is meant to be the wild man of this movie, but his schtick boils down to racial slurs and sleazy sexual come-ons. In this respect the movie feels a little more believable to how Americans regard the rest of the world, but in terms of creating sympathetic action heroes, the movie fails hard.

Joanne Whalley-Kilmer plays a journalist with contacts in the Middle East who Curran romances in an effort to figure out where the missiles are. This subplot is the point where I start to wonder whether the filmmakers were sending up the Seals as trigger-happy psychopaths. Curran takes his 'date' on a tour of a Seals training course. He stages a surprise ambush on her with his buddies and the terrified woman runs away - somehow this scene brings the couple closer. Ugh.

You can say most 80s action movies don't treat female characters well. Navy SEALS really goes out of its way to make its major female character feel like an intellectual obstruction to its heroes' violent pragmatism.

The movie was made at a point where awareness of minorities was growing more mainstream, yet the film's sense of humour is the same as your drunk uncle at Christmas. This movie thinks women are dumb and all the brown people are either psychopaths or extras from a Mad Max movie. To be honest, that is not too far from Commando or Cobra, but the people behind those movies seem to recognise their primary mission is to work as dumb action movies. Navy SEALS has pretensions to be something better than it is, which makes its politics harder to take.

I can see why Navy SEALS has a cult following, I was kind of bored through the whole thing. Boiling it down, it is just not good enough on a pure action level, which prevents it from qualifying as a guilty pleasure.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

When photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) has a nightmare about a murder from the POV of the killer, she dismisses it as a dream. But then she begins to experience these visions during the daytime - and people are turning up dead...

A glossy Hollywood run at an Italian giallo* thriller, based on a script (co)written by horror luminary John Carpenter and directed by the guy behind The Empire Strikes Back? From the outside, Eyes of Laura Mars sounds great. As a big Carpenter fan, Eyes... was one of those movies that I have always been curious to see. I had heard mixed things, so I never felt a great urge to seek it out.

The Academy held a screening of this movie the other night, so I finally had an opportunity to check it out. Maybe it was because I watched it an hour after another movie, but I was a bit let down by this one.

The acting is good, most of the technical elements are fine, but there is something underwhelming about this movie that I can't really put my finger on. For a thriller it is not very thrilling, and as a romance it is a little bland.

The big miss for me is how it flirts with being an Americanised giallo without ever committing to the genre's less 'mainstream' elements: the ultra-violence; the perverse sexuality; the surrealism.

Granted, from a Hollywood perspective I can see certain elements that might seem hard to take, but the movie is so staid I spent the movie waiting for some kind of turn or shock that elevate the movie. NOPE.

One element that the film could have used was a more convoluted plot-line: my favourite giallo generally have a nightmarish quality, a sense of unpredictability that you would not find in a conventional Hollywood thriller.  Eyes of Laura Mars is too clean and sanitised for its own good. There is something inherently weird and unsettling about the central concept, but the movie does nothing with the potential implications of the idea. The movie winds up as a 70s update of the female entrapment thrillers of the 40s and 50s (think Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase or Midnight Lace).

The movie might have worked as a moderately compelling thriller if the killer's POV shots were executed well. Sadly, they are the killing blow that throw the movie off completely. These visions are accomplished by a handheld camera rather than a steadicam. At the time, this was a relatively new invention, but it is ironic that, in the same year this movie was released, original scripter John Carpenter's Halloween delivered a seamless POV sequence on a sliver of the budget.

On the bright side, the photography (by The Candidate's Victor J. Kemper) is mostly slick, and the score by Artie Kane does the heavy lifting to make Laura's visions feel vaguely disturbing.

Eyes of Laura Mars is the kind of movie that could probably benefit from a re-do. Check it out if you are a Carpenter completionist, or want to see Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif(!) and Raul Julia(!!!) as young people.

*Giallo is the name given to a run of (generally) super-violent murder mysteries made in Italy from the mid-60s to the late 70s. Key films include Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, Dario Argento's Deep Red and Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture A Duckling.

    Friday, 13 April 2018

    IN THEATRES: Rampage

    Evil corporation makes a thing that makes animals huge, and it falls to one steroidal primatologist/poacher-poacher (Dwayne Johnson), a disgraced science person (Naomi Harris) and a cowboy cosplayer (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to save the world from the animals' RAMPAGE.

    I am not going to spend a lot of time on this move. It's not that kind of movie. But it is far better than it has any right to be.

    I cannot believe this movie is good. A movie based on a video game - from the 80s - should not be this good. The reason may be that the game's premise - a trio of super-sized monsters destroying a city - is so simple that you can build a story out of the components without disturbing any story structure or gameplay specifics.

    It helps that the story is about a sympathetic gorilla named George. The opening act of this movie is like a remake of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with the Rock as James Franco. It's not as good as that, but the opening sequences with the Rock's primatologist(!) Davis and George do a good job of building up empathy for this unlikely duo.

    After Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle Dwayne Johnson has found another movie that successfully adapts a shaky property into an entertaining flick. It will take a few more solos vehicles for this theory to stick, but I think the Rock has finally cottoned on to the kinds of movies that suit his out-sized presence.

    Cannily blending his 80s-style machismo to animal rights, this is probably the closest the Rock has gotten to the macho action stars of the hardbody era - military past? Check. All the women love him? Yep. Pokes fun at other man's lack of traditional masculinity. Yep. Sexual reticence as a sign of his badassness? Yep.

    This movie is no masterpiece -  the rest of the cast are all over the place. Naomi Harris is saddled with an unnecessary American accent and a line of jokes that she cannot carry off in said accent. She is totally fine otherwise, but those moments clank. The scene in which they reveal their tragic backstories is ridiculously melodramatic, but it works for this story. I REALLY liked that there was no attempt at a romance - there's a crass joke at the end which undermines it a wee bit, but it's fine otherwise.

    Jeffrey Dean Morgan is making a whole bunch of choices as a government black ops guy with a heart of gold. They are not good choices.

    Malin Ackerman is completely toothless as the movie's big corporate baddie. The character is meant to be a sociopath, but there is no bite from her performance. The script does give her a load of clunky exposition, which would be fine if it  was peppered with some spiky one-liners. The person who walks away with the acting honours is Jake Lacy as her dim bulb brother, who is totally onboard with her plan to cash in on the super-growing thingy, but is totally incapable of contributing anything.

    This movie does very well at two things - animal centred melodrama and big scary monsters jumping out of the darkness. The wolf and the crocodile are CGI, but director Brad Peyton does a pretty good job building them up, and focusing on quick glimpses and ramped-up sound design. This is not Spielberg-level in any respect, but if you are in the mood for giant monsters smashing things and killing people in PG13 ways, it does the business.

    Rampage, kids.  It is exactly what you think it is, and that is no bad thing.

    Sunday, 8 April 2018

    IN THEATRES: A Quiet Place

    An unknown race of creatures who hunt via sound have taken over the earth. On an isolated farm, parents Lee and Evelyn (John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, respectively) attempt to raise their children, all the while trying to protect them from the creatures outside...

    What a great little movie!

    That may sound condescending, but I mean it with the highest of praise.

    a simple scary idea, solid character development and a tight 90 minute runtime. It's like a cool glass of water on a hot day. A Quiet Place is just an exceptionally well-crafted movie that deserves all the success in the world.

    Top to bottom, it is just so well done! I’m thinking back to Godzilla (2014), a monster movie that tried to build suspense without showing the monster that much, and this movie smokes it seven ways to Sunday, on a sliver of the budget - and the dialogue. The movie does so much visually and through the performances that you never miss the spoken word. 

    The movie is also nerve-shreddingly tense - the sequence involving a pregnant Emily Blunt trying to give birth while trying to not make a sound is absolutely terrifying.

    As far as direction goes, Krasinski never puts a foot wrong. Everything is paced so well, and he manages to turn his unseen monsters into tangible threats. He shoots them the way  they should be shot the way they should be - out of focus or half-glimpsed, Krasinski avoids revealing too much of their anatomy, ensuring the viewer never has time to get a good look.

    There's an analogy Stephen King used in Danse Macabre where he talks about the fear of the unknown. In his example it is a monster scratching at the door. When the door is opened and the monster is revealed as a 10 foot tall bug, the reader/viewer will immediately process and reframe the image: 'Well, at least it wasn't a 100 foot tall bug." When you don't know what is behind the door, your brain cannot contextualise it and your imagination runs wild. 

    And your imagination is going to be doing a lot of work in Quiet Place.

    Emily Blunt and John Krasinski are great as the parents Evelyn and Lee. Krasinski could have come across as a post-apocalyptic cliche - the strong silent hard ass. But he finds a vein of empathy that feels more real and interesting. He is a survivalist who recognises that his single-minded focus is affecting his children, and attempts to re-connect with them. 

    Blunt, by contrast, is trying to give her children space to be kids. Their performances create  an intimate, believable counterbalance that feels lived-in. They convey a sense of familial warmth and unspoken history that works as a juxtaposition against the monster element of the movie. That's the movie's real success - because this family is so well-drawn it augments the tension. 

    As far as the cast goes, the real standout is Millicent Simmonds as the daughter Regan.

    After raking Shape of Water for its casting, it is great to see a mainstream genre movie include a disabled character played by a disabled actor. On top of that, it is nice to see a disabled character who is not reduced to their impairment, and has a character arc that is not based on it.

    Her character spends the movie guilt-ridden after a fatal error at the beginning of the movie, and Simmonds is excellent - if the stars align, she will be getting more roles after this.

    I cannot think anything that this movie does wrong - there are some obvious character beats, a few instances where characters make obvious poor choices but the whole thing is so solid these are minor quibbles. The film is so well-made it even gets away with a heroic death/goodbye that could have been a pile of stinky cheese - this movie earns every moment.

    A Quiet Place is one of the best movies I have seen so far this year.

    Saturday, 31 March 2018

    IN THEATRES: Blockers

    Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) have been best friends since primary school. Now they are all about to graduate and come up with the perfect send-off to their high school experience: a sex pact on prom night.

    It's perfect except for the part where Julie's mum Lisa (Leslie Mann) finds out about the pact, tells Kayla's man-mountain-with-feelings dad Mitchell (John Cena) and Sam's human-dumpster-fire dad (Ike Barinholtz).

    While the girls party, their parents frantically attempt to catch up to them and foil their plan.

    I caught the trailer for this in front of Game Night, and it looked better than the log line. And as it turns out, this movie is more sophisticated than the premise would suggest. From the outside, this sounds ridiculously old-fashioned and sexist, but the movie (directed by Kay Cannon and written by Brian & Jim Kehoe) is laser-focused on undermining the double standards around women and their sexual agency.

    The closest recent analogue is Bad Neighbours 2, which used a gender inversion to make points about the privileges of fraternities versus sororities. A similar strategy is at work here, with a group of teen girls who want to have sex and party like adults. We have seen this set-up in multiple variations for decades with young men, but generally speaking, those movies (Porkies, American Pie, Superbad etc) do not deviate from its protagonists' POV, which is generally white and cishet.

    While the parents are the focus, Blockers oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis between our heroes and their progeny. The multiple POVs helps the movie to avoid the tunnel vision of similar teen sex comedies,  providing opportunities for more angles on our protagonists' well-intentioned but idiotic quest.

    In the end, Blockers is a movie more concerned with the parents learning to grow up without their kids, rather than the kids: Mann's Lisa does not want her daughter to leave Chicago because she is afraid of being alone; Cena's Mitchell is terrified of his daughter doing anything on her own because he feels that its his job to protect her; Barinholtz's Hunter is a divorced dad who - in contrast to his friends - wants his daughter to have a great night, and feels that this is his one last chance to connect with her.

    It is rare funny movie that cares about all of its main characters, and makes them all active participants in the story. Even the kids are allowed to be people rather than just plot devices for their parents' inanities. There is even a subplot about Sam's reluctance to come out of the closet, which could have either been an exercise in lascivious bad taste or clunky social commentary, but it ends up being an integral thread to the story.

    Another thing I liked about the girls' storyline is that it was not resolved around romance (or even sex) - it ends with an affirmation of their friendship.

    While they are all good, the movie belongs to the Blockers themselves.

    Leslie Mann can do this in her sleep. That's not a diss - she is just so good at keeping handle on her character's insecurities while still finding humour in the situation. She is great.

    I am a big fun of unorthodox personalities finding their way into acting, and John Cena is surprisingly good here. Something is going on with this new batch of wrestlers-turned-actors. John Cena is clearly following the same template as Dave Bautista - he's not going for straight dramatic leads, but finding a niche where his outsized presence works. He's also willing to undermine his masculinity in a way that is really funny. His character is so emotionally exposed that when he tries to put on a macho front it is hilarious. There are a few micro moments where he seems a little wooden, but overall he fit in with Mann and Barinholtz so well it felt like he'd been doing this for years. I am actually looking forward to seeing what he does next.

    The real standout for me was Ike Barinholtz. I know him as a supporting player from the Neighbours movies, where he did this...

    ... but other than that he kind of put me off. Initially, his role as Hunter seems to be cut from the same cloth: a mildly sociopathic wild man who drinks and sleeps around.

    Hunter is an archetype we have seen a million times before, but with a greater sense of emotional baggage: his acting-out feels like a response to his own sense of failure. At first, I found his character horribly cliched, but as more is revealed about his character, he become the heart of the movie. There is a sense of desperation to Barinholtz's clowning that makes him more sympathetic than this character type would usually receive - he has belatedly recognised that he has completely missed on his daughter's life and wants to rectify that.

    In an interesting turn, it turns out that Hunter has cottoned-on to Sam's secret, and his motive is multi-pronged: partially he wants to block the other parents from ruining their girls' night, but he also wants to make sure that Sam does not do something she does not want to do (like have sex with her clueless prom date Chad).

    One of the things this movie makes clear is that the girls all know what they are doing, and manage to sort out their individual predicaments on their own, with no interference from their parents. It also leads to a really sweet scene where Sam comes out to Hunter. While there are a lot of laughs in the movie (the butt-chugging scene et al), this is the high point for me. What's great about it is how it does not go the way you would expect. In any other movie this moment would be purely dramatic, but here it is undercut: Barinholtz manages to simultaneously hold back tears that he has finally connected with Sam, and grins at the realisation that Sam has not told anyone else (including her mum and step-dad).

    After Game Night, Blockers is another fine studio comedy with plenty of laughs and a little more on its mind. Hopefully this is a good sign for the rest of the mainstream comedy releases this year.