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Atomic Blonde

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By this stage of the game describing Charlize Theron’s turn in Atomic Blonde as a female James Bond is a bit of a cliche, but it’s just going to have to do. It’s not all the killing and seducing, mind you – well not only that – but the sheer ruthlessness that she approaches the task of tracking down a stolen list of undercover agents* and avenging a deceased former lover along the way. There’s more than a touch of Connery- or even Dalton-era 007 on display here, and while the hyper-kinetic, high impact action sequences assembled by director David Leitch might bring to mind Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is never so sympathetic. She’s a stone killer, an unapologetic cold-hearted bitch with only the faintest sliver of humanity shining through to differentiate her from the other spies, assassins and bagmen swarming the sharply-delineated shadows of Berlin circa 1989.

It’s a bold and brilliant decision – a quick run through the mental Rolodex only brings up Linda Fiorentino’s turn in The Last Seduction as a comparable female protagonist, and even then Fiorentino’s sociopathic seductress wasn’t capable of kicking seven shades out of whatever goons might be unfortunate enough to cross her eyeline. Theron’s ice-eyed secret agent is more than up to the job, and does so at pretty much any given opportunity. Director Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski, pulls out all the stops here, staging a number of utterly brutal, utterly beautiful action setpieces, including one eight minute sequence captured in a single handheld shot that is going to be the key after-viewing talking point for most audiences.

Another hand to hand scrap takes place inside a cinema screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is a nice tip of the hat and an indicator of Atomic Blonde‘s other key trait – for all its brutality and amorality, it’s a rather playful bit of business. It’s a riff, a pose, an echo, filled with alt-pop ’80s hits (New Order, David Bowie, Nene, even Ministry and Siouxsie and the Banshees). The film’s universe of spies and tough guys isn’t meant to reflect our own in any way beyond what’s necessary to anchor suspension of disbelief. Indeed, perhaps it’s not Bond we should looking to as a touchstone, but Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, which exists in a similar hyper-violent, fantastical modern urban milieu.

Yes, there’s a bit of lip service paid to the cost of life in the secret services and the blurred lines and loyalties thereof – mostly personified by James McAvoy’s perverse and duplicitous rogue agent – but that’s all just part of the affectation. At the end of the day, Atomic Blonde is all about doing cool things and looking cool while doing them, whether it’s decimating a squad of unfortunate German cops, bedding Sofia Boutella’s sexy French agent, or running a gauntlet of hired killers in a desperate final dash for the border. Yes, it’s all surface and no substance, but when the surface is this darn pretty, what does it matter?

*yes, that old chestnut.

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You don’t actually hear too many character names in Dunkirk. The men remain formally anonymous, defined by their actions rather than their names. There’s Kenneth Branagh’s British naval commander, trying to get his head around the logistical nightmare of getting some 400,000 Allied troops off of a French beach near the eponymous town, while German artillery and bombers wreak terrible havoc on both the ships sent to evacuate them and the actual men desperate to get home. There’s Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s RAF pilots, flying sorties over the land and sea battle, trying to ping Luftwaffe planes before they drop their payloads. There’s Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead’s British Army privates, part of that milling 400,000, all thoughts of heroism and adventure forgotten as they try to find some way, any way, to get the hell off the killing floor that the coastline has become.

The exception, notably, is Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, a civilian boatsman and one of countless who were hastily assembled to help evacuate the troops once it became clear that a more conventional approach was going to leave corpses piled head high. It’s he in his little boat, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan), who acts as Dunkirk‘s soft spoken, implacable moral compass. “We’ve a job to do,” he gently tells Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier as he steers them into the hell of battle. “There’s no hiding from this.”

That’s the attitude that permeates the entire exercise. Dunkirk is a film about quiet, pragmatic heroism in the face of certain doom, of small choices and moments of courage contrasted against horror and conflict of almost debilitating scale. It’s an attitude that suits director Christopher Nolan – doing the best work of his career here, make no mistake. Nolan has often been criticised for being a cold and distant director, but in truth he’s not an unemotional filmmaker, simply one who disdains unearned sentimentality. That’s a stereotypically British trait, in a way – think the Old Blitz Spirit, or the Keep Calm & Carry On variation of your choice. His remit here is to lionise the British experience of World War II – something we’re seeing a fair bit of lately, between Churchill and Darkest Hour – but to do it in an appropriately stiff upper lip manner. He does so dexterously, balancing horror and, yes, heroism, with self-effacement and humility.

Crucially, Nolan does not mistake gore for suspense, and while the body count here is massive, the film deals out its deaths in a surprisingly discrete way; it’s interesting to ponder what Spielberg, who littered the screen with limbs and intestines in Saving Private Ryan, or, God help us, Michael Bay, might have done with the material. Nolan even keeps his antagonists at a distance, the Germans making their presence known with bombing and strafing runs, or bullet holes suddenly appearing in the hull of a foundering ship. The enemy is treated like an oncoming storm, a thing not to be fought but to be avoided. In a way, Dunkirk has more in common with a natural disaster movie than a war film, and it’s far more interested in celebrating the valour of simple survival than any kind of martial prowess.

Which certainly doesn’t mean the film is bereft of tension – indeed, this is one of of the most gut-tightening, engrossing, downright suspenseful films of the year. Nolan brings all his considerable technical acumen to mounting the film’s stunningly impressive action sequences, intercutting with incredible precision between different elements, driven along by Hans Zimmer’s nerve-jangling, propulsive, clipped score. Giant ships sink while men scramble for the surface, bombs slam into dunes as men cower beneath ludicrously flimsy pie-plate helmets, fighters jockey for position in blue skies in some of the best dogfighting seen on film. It’s simply masterful stuff, all captured by the nigh-brutal clarity of Hoyte von Hoytema’s cinematography. Nolan and his editor, Lee Smith, zip between incidents with mathematical exactness, building the tempo to an almost unbearable pitch before allowing even a hint of catharsis, then barely pausing for breath before beginning the build up again. Anyone studying parallel action in a film school classroom in the next 20 years is going to be watching Dunkirk – it’s masterful stuff.

Masterful? It just might be a masterpiece. It’s leagues ahead of Nolan’s last effort, the ungainly Interstellar, and in his previous oeuvre only The Prestige is comparable in terms of sheer, breathtaking, cinematic skill. What really strikes home is what a work of artistic discipline Dunkirk is, eschewing almost all unnecessary exposition, dialogue and backstory, delivering up a stirring, satisfying epic war story in only 106 minutes (!). It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and might even be the best – at the very least, it’s hard to imagine another 2017 release more certain of a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

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Transformers: The Last Knight

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And suddenly it all became clear: this was camp.

Transformers: The Last Knight is either one of the worst films ever produced by a major studio, or a future schlock classic that will stand alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster, and The Room – the difference being that while those examples were made by lunatics who thought they were making great art, Michael Bay has here tipped his hand, and we can now be in on the joke. Our mistake all along was in taking these goddamn things seriously, it seems; measured against the standards of classical Hollywood filmmaking, the Transformers series – Revenge of the Fallen onwards, at least – are abominable wastes of time, money, and effort. Viewed as a knowing parody (not satire, mind you – if there’s any Starship Troopers-style political allegory here, it is remarkably elusive) of action movie excess, this latest addition to the franchise is kind of amazing.

It’s the only sane and charitable reason such a terrible piece of cinema got this far. The Last Knight leaves behind recent large-scale failures like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and The Mummy, like they were standing still, gasping in its dust, while it pops a wheelie and its horn plays a dubstep remix of “La Cucuracha”. It’s bad, not just in a pedantic or nitpicky way – although if you have any knowledge of history, art history, geography, nuclear physics, astrophysics, plain old everyday physics, archaeology, architecture, small unit tactics, hydrodynamics, and the basic nature of the human soul, you better strap the hell in – but as a narrative, leaping all over the place, compressing time and shaking up spatial relationships like it was filmed at the Event Horizon of a black hole. At one point Marky Mark makes a big deal out of leaving all his friends behind to jump on a plane to England by himself. When he gets there, Bumblebee is suddenly with him. Presumably he swam. Or teleported. It still doesn’t explain why the film’s version of Britain, where much of the action takes place, appears to be maybe five miles across, judging by travel time.

Teleportation is possible – characters exhibit new traits as the plot demands all the time. Hot Rod (a new Autobot voiced by Omar Sy) whips out a gun that can slow down time. Bumblee’s voicebox is still broken – right up until it suddenly isn’t. Marky has a magic disappearing sword. It’s incredible – there are times when you’ll swear you blacked out, because some new element will crop up and surely, surely, they’ve taken a second or so to explain it. God knows the film stops for long stretches of just risible dialogue at enough points.

Much of that dialogue is delivered by Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins and Academy Award watcher Mark Wahlberg, and they do okay. Hopkins is clearly having an absolute ball, having no illusions about the type of film he’s in and barking his lines with glee. Wahlberg is Wahlberg, the hero of the story – it’s now a longstanding tradition that Transformers movies aren’t about Transformers. Bay clearly has no affinity for the robots- but he also doesn’t care for people much, either. His ideal film would involve nothing but spinning tracking shots of non-talking vehicles filmed against a sunset, with a lot of particulate matter in the air. For three hours.

Here, though, he’s lumbered with a plot that he must at least pay lip service to, much to his clear disgruntlement. The story, credited to Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan, pushes in two directions. There’s the problem at hand, which sees Autobot leader Optimus Prime pull a Dominic Toretto and turn against his comrades – which would be quite a twist if that particular hero of a million childhoods hadn’t been portrayed as violent, arrogant, unpredictable and downright murderous for the last three movies. Prime returns to Earth (just go with it if you’ve blocked out the last movie) as the herald of robot goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who wants to destroy the Earth for reasons that would be spoilers if such things mattered here, but we’ll defer to the delicate sensibilities poor, deluded Transformers fans, may Quintessa have mercy on their soul.

This leads into the other narrative thread, designed to expand the Transformers Cinematic Universe in a number of franchise-friendly ways. Essentially, the goofy change-o-bots have been here all along, participating in human history since the time of King Arthur (don’t even start) right through to at least World War II, and somehow the wider world never noticed, despite Tony Hopkins owning a room of artworks that basically look like this. He owns them because he’s a member of a secret society called the – wait for it – Witwiccans, who have worked alongside the Transformers for over a millennium, hiding their existence from the waking world. And let’s face it, that basic conceit – the Illuminati, but with giant robots – is kind of beautiful in its audacious stupidity, even if its only narrative payoff is a search for a MacGuffin that feels like what you’d get if you asked Koko the Gorilla to rewrite The Da Vinci Code. At least we get a sassy robot butler out of the deal in the form of Cogman, Tony’s mouthy manservant.

Previous elements are re-introduced without much rhyme or reason, including Josh Duhamel’s army dude, now working for an anti-robot task force called TRF. He’s just kind of there, flipping from protagonist to antagonist depending on how long it’s been since something blew up, but it’s interesting to note that, following Sector 7, N.E.S.T., and Cemetery Wind, that’s four different shadowy Transformer-hunting teams this series has seen over five movies. Also just kind of there is John Turturro’s Simmons, for no good reason except that Bay seems to be collecting cast members from The Big Lebowski; John Goodman reprises his voice role as Autobot soldier Hound, and Steve Buscemi crops up as a weird robot scavenger. Do not be surprised if Jeff Bridges turns up as a toaster or a waffle iron next movie.

We also get the Decepticons back, with Megatron (Frank Welker, not Hugo Weaving this time) and co. introduced into the plot because apparently it’s easier for the military to cut a deal with a team of towering metal sociopaths than engage in a dialogue with the Autobots. The plot moves as though the basic question the screenwriters kept asking themselves was “What actions, however implausible and unmotivated, will lead to the worst possible outcome for all concerned,” and this particular wrinkle is just one of many instances.

The whole thing winds up in a massive, FX-heavy, literally earth-shaking climax that would be impressive if it weren’t so patently ludicrous, and leaves the next film with almost nowhere to go in terms of scale except, say, blowing up the sun (don’t put it past ‘em). If you’re turned on by the best work the rendering farms of South Korea can provide, you’re in for a good time here, and a three headed robot dragon is always a good time, generally speaking.

But here’s the thing – The Last Knight is ridiculous, so obviously, unmistakably aware of its own crass and bombastic nature, that it’s rarely unenjoyable. It’s fascinating: the way almost every character is inhumanly mean to every other character until the time comes for them to pull at some heartstrings. The way Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager’s essential function is as a salve to the shattered machismo of American men – at one point Hopkins actually lays out that it doesn’t matter if he’s an unemployed, perpetually broke loser with a dead wife and an absent daughter, he can still be a hero – a bit of business so on the nose it simply cannot be anything but deliberate. The unmotivated camera moves, the golden hour light, the way explosions only hurt exactly one character out of the dozens who get blown up (Shockwave exists in this universe, but shockwaves don’t). The stentorian tones of Prime voice Peter Cullen mouthing the most awful, hackneyed lines about heroism and brotherhood, even though seconds earlier he’d been doing his level best to remove his best mate’s head. The sheer, money-sucking, egregious excess of the whole enterprise – in its own weird way, it’s admirable. And hilarious.

Unless you take it seriously for a second, which Bay and the boys certainly don’t. Transformers: The Last Knight is clearly Michael Bay seeing how far he can push his long-running, multi-billion dollar savage indictment of blockbuster cinema. Let’s hope it makes a trillion dollars, just to see what he does next.


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Hounds of Love

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Sneaking out of her mother’s house to go to a party, a teenage girl, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is kidnapped by a couple, John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth), intent on rape and murder, and imprisoned in their suburban home. She is not their first victim. Vicki soon realises that her only hope of escape is to drive a wedge between the sadistic, predatory John and the volatile, emotionally fragile Evelyn. However, her attempts to do so may just see her headed for a shallow bush grave earlier than planned.

Perth director Ben Young’s feature debut is relatively straight forward in terms of plot, but it lives in the details. Hounds of Love is a closely observed examination of the banality of evil and the transactional nature of relationships – even relationships rooted in rape and abuse. Young, who also wrote the screenplay, builds up his mundane suburban milieu layer by layer, letting the tacky ephemera of mid-’80s Australia do the heavy lifting in defining a humdrum, beat down world of sleepy, sun-beaten streets, thong-wearing petty criminals, scorched lawns and semi-feral neighbourhood dogs. It’s behind the scenes where the real horrors happen, though.

“Horror” being a charged term. Hounds of Love deals with some undeniably horrific subject matter, but its approach is careful and deliberate, implying more than showing. Cinematographer Michael McDermott’s command of the frame is exemplary, turning the Whites’ suburban house – only a handful of rooms behind security locks and plywood-covered windows – into a foreboding prison. There is gore at times, yes, but far more affecting is the ever-presence possibility of violence, to the point where, when it does erupt, it’s almost a relief.

What we focus on then, is the character dynamics, as we try to predict how the tensions between the three principals will exhibit themselves, and who has the power in any given exchange. Young’s handling of this is deft; his background in music videos pretty much assured we’d get a good-looking film out of him, but his handling of the cast and the character relationships is really impressive. Stephen Curry, usually seen in much lighter fare, is mesmerising as the menacing John, enacting terrible power fantasies in his suburban castle to compensate for his inadequacies and lack of power in the real world, while Ashleigh Cummings gives an incredibly courageous performance as a child of privilege who must find hidden strengths to carry herself through her ordeal.

Emma Booth is the real standout here, though, embodying a woman who is both abuser and abused, conditioned by literally decades of subjugation into being an accomplice to atrocity. It’s the tragedy of her situation that elevates Hounds of Love above your more rote “everyday horror” fare; we see her desires for some kind of normal, nurturing life, but its forever beyond her reach because of the nature of her relationship with John. she’s repulsive, to be sure – a rapist, a murderer, complicit in, if not guilty of, torture and depravity – but there’s a humanity in her that’s capable of eliciting empathy, which makes for some very uncomfortable and conflicting viewing.

Surely it goes without saying that this film is not for everyone? Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to label Hounds of Love as a simple exercise in boundary-pushing for its own sake. This is an intelligent piece of grounded horror, and an outstanding debut film.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Space-faring rogue Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) and his rag-tag crew of miscreants and mercenaries have been doing alright off the back of saving the whole ball of wax in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, life for an intergalactic team of superheroes is never easy, and when we catch up with them this time around they’re dealing with a dual threat. On the one hand, they’ve managed to tick off an empire of genetically-engineered superbeings who respond to the slightest perceived insult with deadly, overwhelming force. On the other, mutiny among the space pirates known as the Ravagers sees Quill’s mentor/nemesis, Yondu (Michael Rooker) ousted from command, and his former comrades tasked with tracking down and capturing the Guardians. Things get even more complicated when a third faction intervenes: a cosmically powerful alien interloper called Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Quill’s long-lost alien dad. While Peter processes three decades worth of daddy issues (and comes to terms with his own potentially world-shaking power) the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Again.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? A trick is never as impressive the second time around, even when that trick is saving the whole of creation. When the first Guardians of the Galaxy hit it was a breath of fresh air, coming on the heels of the Marvel Studios A-list films and putting a plucky pack of C-listers front and centre. Co-writer and director James Gunn, a Troma veteran, had never helmed a big studio pic before, Christ Pratt had never headlined one, and as the memes noted, Bradley Cooper was playing a talking raccoon and Vin Diesel was a tree! It was a wonderfully weird take on the SF blockbuster, deftly balancing humour, pathos and action – this was a film that opened with a cancer death, closed with the unleashing of cosmic power, and filled the time in between with some wonderfully off-colour jokes, an eclectic ’70-focused soundtrack, some brilliant set-pieces and album-cover-worthy production design.

Vol. 2 does all that again, but it often feels like its hitting predetermined mark rather than charting its own anarchic path. Which is not to say you’re going to have bad time watching it – this flick is so palpably keen to entertain it all but tap dances – but there are expectations to be met now, and what was once fresh is now rote. The needle drops seem forced at times, the jokes too intrusive. The balance is out, with the comedy often overwhelming the other factors in play and threatening to break suspension of disbelief (still an important factor, even in a film as outlandish as this). There are two gags – one involving tape, another involving Baby Groot being sent to fetch something – that pretty much need to be excised entirely; they just break even the remotest sense of plausibility, and that doesn’t help matters when the film is trying to deal with some emotionally resonant stuff.

Where the film excels is in handling the themes of family and fatherhood, doubling down effectively on the “family of choice” motif found in the first film. Obviously Star-Lord is a focal point here, what with his absentee father turning out to be a laid-back, all powerful Kurt Russell (and really, if you’re an orphan dreaming of an idealised father figure, how could it not look like Kurt Russell?), and the raised profile of Rooker’s Yondu in the publicity material is not simply because he looks cool with a mohawk – there’s plenty being said about good fathers and bad, about responsibility, and about generational expectations.

Refreshingly, its not all about Star-Lord (let’s face it, 90% of pop culture is about guys trying to grapple with weak or absent fathers on some level), with the film taking the time to examine the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) adopted daughters of the tyrant, Thanos, each dealing with the trauma of their brutal upbringing in quite different ways. The narrative actually fleshes out Nebula a lot; a fairly one-note villain in the first film, she becomes a three-dimensional character this time out.

Indeed, a lot of the fun here comes from seeing different characters paired up with each other. Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) get to realise that, for a blue-skinned space pirate and a cybernetically enhanced rodent, they actually have a lot in common (and they get the film’s standout action sequence almost all to themselves). Meanwhile, the hyper-literal Drax (Dave Bautista) gets some hang time with newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien empath whose unworldly innocence pairs well with Drax’s bluntness.

And despite its shortcomings, which are more about tone control than anything else, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a huge amount of fun. Everything you expect to find is here – epic space battles, witty one-liners, a high ideal or two, stunning alien vistas (although nothing to rival the Bowie-backed reveal of Nowhere in the first film), and a big, sentimental beating heart at the centre of it all. It’s a really good time.

And yes, Baby Groot is cute as hell.

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The Fate of the Furious

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So here it is, The Fate of the Furious, the latest episode of what has become, against all odds, the most consistently entertaining action franchise of the 21st century. There may be individual outliers – The Raid, the first John Wick, and we’ll allow a rigorous defence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – but when it comes to the sagas – your Bonds and Bournes, your Marvel Cinematic Universe – the F&F series revs its engines and leaves them all in the dust. A rewatch of the 2001 original demonstrates what a remarkable feat that is.

But we’re here to talk about The Fate of the Furious, or Fast 8, which takes the series’ thematic throughline of the importance of family into new(ish) territory by having our gruff patriarch, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), go rogue, betraying his team and throwing in with Cipher, a ruthless cyber-terrorist played with icy glee by Charlize Theron. Of course, she’s got incredible leverage on Dom – our sentimental, potato-headed hero hasn’t really gone evil – but that doesn’t prevent Dwayne Johnson’s lawman, Luke Hobbs, from assuming leadership of the “fambly” and going after Dom with everything they’ve got.

“Everything” in this case being the full weight of the covert intelligence organisation the shadowy Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell, here joined by 2IC Scott Eastwood as, appropriately, Little Nobody) represents. Our gang of rebels and thieves have now effectively become a cartoonish super hero strike force, ala G.I. Joe or M.A.S.K., and the transformation has been so gradual yet consistent that it seems to make perfect sense. “We finally got a tank,” Ludacris’s Tej marvels at one point, and your reaction is laughter at the audacity, and anticipation of the mayhem that is to follow.

And there is plenty of that – the action here is absolutely spectacular; although there’s nothing to rival the building-to-building jumps in FF7, it’s only missing by a few degrees. Cipher’s Bond villain plot gives the story license to jump from exotic location to exotic location, starting off in Cuba and climaxing at an icebound Russian naval facility – with a nuclear submarine thrown into the mix because, hell, why not? The narrative doesn’t even bother to justify the car focus any more – it’s simply the family’s modus operandi. Tyrese Gibson’s Roman gets a bright orange Lamborghini because he really, really wants it – who cares if tooling across a frozen ocean in that thing makes absolutely zero sense? It’s style over logic and spectacle over substance, and it works. Boy, does it work.

We also get some energetic extra-vehicular action, largely thanks to the presence of Johnson and Jason Statham, whose ex-SAS villain gets redeemed when he’s recruited to the cause because of a pre-existing grudge against Cipher. There’s a prison riot sequence early on that is one for the books, and in the climax Statham also gets a big action beat of his very own that will have John Woo fans grinning in appreciation, though to say more would be to (Tokyo) drift into spoiler territory.

Johnson and Statham also get plenty of laughs with their macho posturing as they move from wanting to murder each other to grudging respect (there’s a PhD in analysing the franchise’s simultaneous celebration and subversion of traditional masculinity), but the comedy MVP is once again Tyrese Gibson, whose hapless Roman
gets put through the ringer, much to his dismay. He’s never in any real danger, of course; almost no one is. Our heroes are all but bullet proof, and explosions certainly give them little to worry about. Hell, at one point Johnson is shrugging off rubber bullets like they were mosquito bites. The exception is one recurring character who gets given extremely short shrift in an extremely troubling manner – but, again, spoilers. Still, it’s a troubling note in an otherwise extremely enjoyable ride.

“Enjoyable” is the word – The Fate of the Furious is huge fun, juggling outrageous spectacle and an ever-increasing cast of characters with admirable poise. This film is an absolute blast, pure and simple – strap in and take the ride.

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The Walking Dead S7 E16: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Well here we are – the season seven finale of The Walking Dead and the shambling show’s ninety-ninth episode! Season seven has been an odd one. On the one hand we had bold, shocking episodes like the season opener “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” and enjoyably goofy adventures in splatter like “Rock in the Road”, not to mention Richonne-centric episode “Say Yes”. However those high points have often been floundering next to oddly-paced efforts like “Swear” and “The Other Side”.

What this season needed was a kick-arse, game-changing, jaw-dropping finale that will make the occasional stumbles feel worthwhile. So is “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” that episode? Partially, yes, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

The episode opens with a creepy close-up of Sasha’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) sweaty face. She appears to be in a small dark room and is listening to music on an iPod. Is she dying, crying or passing out? We don’t know yet and we’ll be revisiting this strong image throughout the episode.

After the opening titles, and a quick visit to Sasha again, we head into a flashback where Sasha recalls her final day with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). The pair of them are still in the early period of their relationship and Sasha has had a nightmare about Abe’s death. It soon becomes clear they’re about to leave on the journey at the end of which Abraham gets his proud ginger bonce flattened. It’s a bittersweet memory that we’ll be returning to throughout the episode’s extended runtime.

Back at Alexandria, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is grilling Dwight (Austin Amelio) about why he wants to help them. Dwight claims he wants Negan dead, but Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Tara (Alanna Masterson) would quite happily kill the scarred defector on the spot. Cooler heads prevail and Dwight is allowed to initiate a plan to kill Negan. As Dwight drives off Daryl observes he’s “gonna kill that sum’bitch” when everything’s all over. For that “Easy Street” song alone, we’re with you, Dazza.

Meanwhile in Sasha’s cell, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is talking to Sasha about how peace can reign after “Lucille takes three”. Sasha is horrified by this revelation and cunningly talks Negs down to one. “Just one person has to die,” she says in a way that pretty much guarantees we won’t be seeing her in season eight.

At the Hilltop, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) pitches her plan to help Rick to Jesus (Tom Payne). Jesus agrees with her and offers that it’s good Maggie is the one giving the order as it seems Gregory (Xander Berkeley) has done a runner, possibly to dob on our heroes. Fuck’s sake, Gregory, Maggie saved you from two zombies last week! Have a word with yourself.

Elsewhere the Kingdom is on patrol. They come up against a line of shopping trolleys, a technique last seen in “Bury Me Here”. Morgan (Lennie James) emerges from the shadows and, just in case you hadn’t realised how crazy he was, we can see he’s sharpened his staff into a spear. Morgan is clad in Benjamin’s armour and doesn’t seem keen to join with the Kingdom until Ezekiel (Khary Payton) delivers a speech that declares, “No one will suffer under [The Savior’s] capricious malevolence again!” When a bloke with a tiger says stuff like that it’s hard not to fall in line, and Morgan walks next to Carol (Melissa McBride) as they march to war.

Back at Alexandria the Bin Chickens (aka Heapsters) arrive on pushbikes and garbage trucks. Yes, they drive actual garbage trucks. They’re thematically consistent, which you’ve gotta admire. Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh, who can do no wrong) looks Rick over and asks Michonne if she can: “Lay with him after. You care?” Clearly Michonne would care but Rick seems at least at a little tempted.

We move into a tension-building sequence where we cut back and forth between Alexandria preparing for war and Negan approaching, slowed down by Dwight’s felled tree trap. This is a beautifully scored sequence and really amps up the expectations for the violence to come.

The Saviors finally arrive but something seems off. For a start, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) is standing in for the big fella. When Rick asks where Negan is, Eugene answers: “I am Negan.” Rick’s had about enough of this bullshit and he gives Rosita the nod for her to spring her explosive trap. She presses the button and… nothing. What’s going on? Cue the episode’s best twist. The fucking BIN CHICKENS turn on our heroes, bamboozling the ENTIRE COMMUNITY OF ALEXANDRIA with the weapons they themselves fought so hard to get. What the hell, Pollyanna McIntosh, we literally said you could do no wrong two paragraphs ago!

Personal feelings aside this is a really excellent and surprising development. Alexandria is suddenly on the back foot and Negan enters, holding Lucille and grinning the smuggest of smug grins. Apparently Negan just made a better deal with the Bin Chickens (booo!) which, you know, Rick probably should have allowed for. Negan wants the following: all the guns, a victim for Lucille (of Rick’s choosing, no less), Daryl and a pool table – with cues and chalk. Rick, on the other hand, wants to see that Sasha is still alive. Negan presents a coffin which he begins to open…

We go into a recent flashback where Sasha claims she’ll ride in the coffin, and all she wants is a small bottle of water. This apparently gives Negan a major boner but he lets it happen. We finally understand what we’ve been flashing back to: Sasha riding in the coffin after swallowing Eugene’s suicide pill.

So when Negan opens the coffin, zombie Sasha lurches out, trying to take a big bite out of his tasty flesh! The bamboozler has become the bamboozled! Rick and a number of Alexandrians use the opportunity to fight back against the Bin Chickens and Saviors, and a messy gunfight ensues. Rosita (Christian Serratos) cops a bullet but is dragged to safety by Tara. Michonne has a nasty battle with a random Bin Chicken. Rick attempts to do some sexy bartering with Jadis but instead of joining in like usual she just shoots him in the thigh. So, you know, a little less sexy than usual.

The uprising is thwarted. Rick ends up on his knees next to Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Negan delivers a big old speech that we know will end with Carl getting his head turned into skull hommus. Someone falls off the sniper’s perch and Rick seems to believe it’s Michonne. Negan crows to Rick about the bad shit that’s about to happen but Rick reminds him that he, in fact, will kill Negan no matter what. Negan fury chuckles and hefts Lucille…

… when SHIVA THE FUCKING TIGER jumps into the fray and starts eating Saviors! The Kingdom has arrived! The Hilltop has arrived! And did we mention the motherflipping tiger? The tide has seriously turned and the the Bin Chickens and Saviors all bid a hasty retreat, taking heavy casualties along the way. Negan leaves Alexandria, defiantly offering a one-fingered salute as he goes. Rick finds Michonne badly beaten but alive.

Back at the Sanctuary, Negan is pissed off. He quizzes Eugene on how Sasha died. Eugene lies and claims she must have suffocated but Negan seems suspicious. Maybe Eugene isn’t quite as Negan as he claims? Regardless, the boss man addresses his troops, saying “we’re going to war!” Everyone cheers. These boys love a fight.

The episode ends with a bittersweet conversation between Rick and Maggie delivered in voice over. During the talk we see Jesus take down walker Sasha and Maggie pulling out her knife to finish her off. Carol and Morgan share a moment, bloodied from battle. Daryl discovers a message from Dwight that he “Didn’t Know”, but do we trust him? Alliances are affirmed and the battlelines drawn. It’s a surprisingly emotional sequence that leans heavily on the viewer’s nostalgia for the previous six seasons, but works nonetheless.

“The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” is not the all out war some viewers may have been hoping for. As we predicted in last week’s review, it’s more the first battle of many rather than the concluding chapter. Our heroes will be fighting Negan for some time yet to come, but if that’s the case at least they’re united with a common goal which will hopefully lead to more focus in the storytelling.

Greg Nicotero does a superb job as usual with everything except some of the gunplay in the episode’s second half, which felt oddly clumsy. However that’s easily forgiven when you consider the tiger attack, trio of big surprises and the solid character work with Sasha – we shall miss you, Sonequa Martin-Green.

Ultimately “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” is a solid, course-correcting conclusion to a shambolic, occasionally directionless season. It sets up a eighth season of proactive storytelling and, hopefully, will dig into some of Negan’s backstory… before he gets killed in a horrifically graphic fashion, that is.

So that’s FilmInk’s coverage of season seven done for the year. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you back for weekly coverage of both Fear the Walking Dead and Game of Thrones in the coming months.

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Ghost in the Shell

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In an unnamed, presumably Asian, megacity in an undated, presumably not too distant, future, special task force Section 9 hunt the various terrorists and cyber-criminals that threaten the security of the high-tech state. Their chief operative is The Major (Scarlett Johansson), physically just a living brain in a sophisticated artificial body, who can perform superhuman feats even as her nature forces her to question her own essential humanity. When a mysterious criminal known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) begins murdering high-level scientists at Hanka Robotics – the corporation that created Major’s robotic chassis – secrets are revealed that could not only uncover the truth about her origins, but threaten the stability of the state itself.

Director Rupert Sanders’ visually adroit but narratively loose adaptation of the popular multimedia Japanese franchise is certainly something to behold. Taking his cues from Ghost in the Shell‘s manga and anime incarnations, plus a host of cyberpunk media from Blade Runner to Strange Days and all points in between (Takeshi Kitano, here playing Section 9’s gruff chief, is a veteran of the Keanu Reeves/William Gibson misfire, Johnny Mnemonic), he gives us a near future tech-tropolis that feels new and intriguing even when it’s lifting directly from its source material – there’s just something about seeing these hologram-drenched vistas in “real life” rather than pen and ink. It’s cinema du look at its finest, where image trumps meaning and cool is more important than smart. If the visual aesthetic is the most important element when it comes to cinema, then Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, there’s a script in the mix as well, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Krueger, and it doesn’t seem to trust Sanders’ sensual imagery to tell the story and address the themes at hand. At one point Major, noticing damage to her arm, contemplates the wreckage of a recently destroyed geisha android. “You’re not like them,” her gruff 2IC, Batou (Pilou Asbæk, pretty great) mutters. Yeah, we get it – is there anything worse than a supposedly smart sci-fi film that thinks its audience is too dumb to pick up the pieces it’s putting down? We’ve been watching variations on this story since Metropolis, and at the very least we’re au fait with Robocop – pay us the courtesy of assuming we’re cine-literate.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing – characters spouting clunky expository dialogue or explaining key concepts to each other in a way nobody real ever does. Really it’s a fairly common fault throughout the entire GitS franchise – the ’95 anime is frequently pausing the narrative to indulge in tedious philosophical navel-gazing, and at least the new model keeps that material buried in the subtext where it belongs. The film is also in love with its own weightiness, slowing the story flow to a crawl and forgetting to imbue its villains with much sense of menace – Kuze never comes across as the existential threat he’s tagged as, and Peter Ferdinando’s sinister corporate suit is straight out of mid-’80s central casting, too much of a cliche to come across as a palpable danger.

Still, there’s joy to be found in the details. The action beats are fantastic, shot with a staccato rhythm and a creative understanding of what you might do with the robot bodies, chameleon suits and other assorted tech toys in play. The depiction of a multicultural melting pot of a metropolis is top notch, taking Bill Gibson’s old adage that “the street finds its own use for things” and running with it as far as possible in its portrayal of weird robotic enhancements, weapons, and gizmos – design fetishists will have this one on repeat for years to come. And, impressively, that whole whitewashing scandal gets addressed in the most astute way possible – but that’s a conversation for another, far more spoilery, article.

Ghost in the Shell skids right up to the edge of greatness but falls short thanks to a typically conservative mistrust of both its material and its audience. For all that, it’s a beautiful, committed attempt at bringing the property to a wider audience, and you can all but feel Sanders and his team fighting for purchase against the constraints of big-budget, big-studio filmmaking. Tell you what, if you can watch it with the dialogue track muted, bump the score up by 20% – at least that way you don’t have the jarring experience of the movie telling you what you’re looking at.

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The Walking Dead S7 E15: Something They Need

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

In the aftermath of last week’s disappointing “The Other Side” – with its heavy emphasis on Operation Dipshit – The Walking Dead really needed a strong, focused episode to get us back on track. So is “Something They Need” something we needed? Kinda, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

This episode begins with an excellent cold open. A John Carpenter-esque synth score plays as we hear Tara (Alanna Masterson) tell Rick (Andrew Lincoln) about the Oceansiders and their sweet, sweet cache of weapons. On screen we see Rick and crew preparing to take the weapons, by force it seems, and a horde of slimy, barnacled zombies disgorging from a large, partially sunken boat. This is the kind of efficient, visual storytelling The Walking Dead really needs more of and the beach of barnacled biters is a strong image on which to segue into the opening titles.

Meanwhile at The Sanctuary, Sasha (Sonequa Martin) has been imprisoned in the same cell that played a temporary home to both Daryl and Eugene. Apparently we’re not going to see how she managed to get caught, and frankly the less said about her profoundly stupid plan the better. David (Martinez) pays Sasha a visit and within about a minute decides he’s going to rape her. He gets down to the trouser-dropping stage when Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) pops in and plays an actual savior for once. Negan, you see, draws the line at rape. Beating unarmed people to death with a baseball bat? Fine. Sexual assault? Not on his watch. Negan demonstrates this point by knifing “Rapey Davey” through the neck. He leaves the cooling corpse and bloody knife with Sasha, offering her a number of options – kill herself, try to kill Negan, kill Rapey Davey before he becomes “dead alive Rapey Davey” or let herself become zombie food. Not a great list of options but Negan makes the offer sound tempting, as he purrs to Sasha about her “beachball-sized lady nuts”.

Later, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) pops in to preach the gospel of Negan to Sasha. He actually does a pretty convincing job of explaining his own motivations for joining the Saviors but Sasha doesn’t want a bar of it. Eugene leaves and Rapey Davey’s dead eyes open…

Back at the Hilltop Gregory (Xander Berkeley) pays a visit to Maggie (Lauren Cohan) who is doing a spot of gardening outside the walls. Olive branches are extended but as Maggie continues to garden, Gregory seems to toy with the idea of stabbing her. He decides not to and then a zombie arrives. Gregory laughs off the idea of a pregnant lady helping him dispatch the walker, but then can’t seal the deal and backs off. Maggie stabs the zombie quickly and efficiently and even saves Greggers from a second ambulatory corpse. A group of Hilltop residents arrive just in time to see Gregory puking as Maggie calmly sheaths her weapon, offering a fairly heavy-handed visual juxtaposition. It’s clear the balance of power is shifting at the Hilltop.

Back at Oceanside, Tara attempts to reason with Natania (Deborah May) to get the weapons off the ladies without any bloodshed. Apparently she isn’t given much time to accomplish this because within a few minutes explosions are ringing out and Tara gets grabbed by the grumpy alpha nan.

The explosions were just to distract the Oceansiders, and Rick rather apologetically informs everyone he totes needs those weapons to wipe out the Saviors. Interestingly his words (and heavy ordinance) seem to convince most of the group, except Natania who holds Tara at gunpoint. It looks like Natania is about to cop a shot to the bonce from a tree-sniping Michonne (Danai Gurira) but the waterlogged zombies from the cold open arrive and everyone must band together, albeit briefly.

The salty sea corpses are dispatched in a delightful scene of efficient carnage and impressive special makeup effects and by the end of it everyone supports Team Rick. Everyone that is except Natania who has been knocked out by Cyndie (Sydney Park). It’s a little weird that everyone is so quickly onboard with Rick’s plan to nab the weapons, especially the more potentially fatal elements of it, but it succeeded so… yay?

Back at the Sanctuary Sasha has killed Rapey Davey and Negan all but tells her she’ll be used in some way to hurt Rick. Eugene visits later and Sasha desperately begs for a gun or a knife or some way she can kill herself. It’s a ruse, of course, Sasha wants another crack at killing Negan but Eugene obliges: providing her with the poison he concocted way back in “Hostiles and Calamities”. This was not what Sasha was hoping for and she’s left alone in her cell, wondering just what the hell she was thinking joining Operation Dipshit in the first place.

Finally our conquering heroes, now armed to the teeth, arrive back at Alexandria. They are greeted by Rosita (Christian Serratos) who informs them they have a visitor cooling his heels in their cell. It’s Dwight (Austin Amelio) who tells the gang he wishes to defect and help kill Negan. Rick pulls out his shiny .357 Magnum (aka The Overcompensator) and tells Dwight to get on his knees.

The episode ends with our heroes ready to take on Negan, now with weapons and even perhaps a new ally. “Something They Need” is an enjoyable enough episode with some great-looking zombies and decent tension, but it doesn’t feel like the second last entry before Negan’s reign is ended. In fact I think us Walking Dead fans are just going to have to accept that the Rick vs Negan storyline will probably be dragged on for at least half a season too long. So basically Governor 2.0.

Of course I might be wrong. Perhaps next week’s finale will wrap everything up beautifully but it seems unlikely. Either way I’ll see you back here in seven days.


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The Walking Dead S7E13: Bury Me Here

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

 Morgan has in recent seasons become one of the more annoying characters on The Walking Dead. The blame for this rests not on the shoulders of actor Lennie James, who consistently delivers A-grade performances even when he’s working with shonky material, but rather in the maddeningly inconsistent writing for his character.

This is a character who has been with us since the beginning, has featured on one of the best episodes ever, “Clear” from season 3, and still provides solid thrills in his better moments. However his recent conversion to pacifism has gone from mildly interesting to frankly idiotic, but with “Bury me Here” it looks like Morgan’s ready to make war not peace.

The episode begins with a bunch of characters from the Kingdom glaring at a rockmelon. We’re not sure what the piece of fruit has done wrong, other than be the least interesting part of a fruit salad, and the credits begin before we can find out.

We move through dual action of Carol (Melissa McBride) heading into the Kingdom (dispatching zombies with a street sign, bless her heart) and Morgan teaching stick fighting to Benjamin’s younger brother. Carol grills Morgan about Daryl, wanting to know if her best bud was withholding information in his previous visit. Morgan replies that it’s not his secret to tell, leaving Carol frustrated. Benjamin (Logan Miller) tries to bond with Carol on the way out but she wants none of his nonsense and brushes him off. Then Ben gifts Morgan a thoughtful painting and those of us who have been watching The Walking Dead for a while know the little tacker’s days are numbered.

A number of Kingdom members, including Benjamin, Morgan and Richard (Karl Makinen) head off to the drop point to pay their tribute to the Saviors. They’re stopped by a barricade constructed of shopping trolleys and find an empty grave nearby with a sign saying “Bury me Here”. Creepy.

They arrive late at the drop and are one rockmelon short a tribute. The Saviors are none too pleased and it looks like they’re going to kill off one of our heroes. Richard steps forward to take one for the team but the arsehole Saviors shoot Benjamin in the leg instead. Ezekiel and Morgan attempt to save Benjamin at Carol’s place but it’s too late, Benjamin bleeds out and Morgan goes dark. Really dark.

Morgan soon puts the pieces together and realises the whole caper was set up by Richard, who wanted his own death to start the war with the Saviors. Morgan takes Richard’s explanation on the chin, but there’s something going on behind his eyes. Savior tribute round two and the gang deliver one rockmelon (so that explains it!) but before it goes on too long Morgan leaps on Richard and chokes him to a messy, gasping death in front of everyone.

Members of the Kingdom and Saviors alike are frankly horrified, even after Morgan explains the whole nasty business was Richard’s fault. Still the war is delayed for the moment and Morgan decides to obey the sign and buries Richard where the grave was dug. Then Morgan goes on a wild-eyed zombie bashing spree and it’s deliriously wonderful, but he’s clearly unravelling.

Morgan heads back to Carol’s place and finally tells her the truth about Glenn and Abraham. Carol tears up but manages to hold it together long enough to offer the now near-psychotic Morgan use of her halfway house. She won’t be needing it anymore.

Back at the Kingdom Carol arrives in time to plant new life in Ezekiel’s garden where the pair of them agree they will need to fight soon but “not today”. Carol also mentions that she’s moving into the Kingdom. She’s ready to be part of the community. To fight for it and to die for it.

“Bury me Here” is a solid bit of piece-moving that finally gives us back Morgan and Carol ready to fight. It’s a little rough around the edges, and Richard’s plans were deeply dubious, but it seems like the Kingdom’s finally ready to join the war – which is good news for everyone. Except, you know, Negan.