Thursday, 24 April 2014

Sheriff J.W. Pepper and the Worst of Bond

"A Secret Agent! On Whooose Side?"

Oh dear, Sheriff J.W Pepper may not represent the nadir of the James Bond franchise - that particular honour is reserved for Die Another Day - but he is still an embarrassment to most 007 aficionados.

The Louisiana lawman is played by Clifton James in Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. There has never been an explanation as to why some faceless idiot thought giving Roger Moore an unlikely 'buddy' partner would be a good idea. The tubby cop is a lame sideshow to what should have been Moore's breakthrough Bond role. His presence marks the moment when the series became more of a comedy than drama.

There is no disguising the fact that Pepper is an obvious caricature. He speaks exclusively in exclamations, with 'boy' and other features of southern dialect clumsily splattered across his speech. Once again a Bible Belt character is portrayed by Hollywood as some sort of feckless, incompetent moron. Moreover, in typically stereotyped fashion, this clown continually spits to show us all how quintessentially cowboy he is, as if we did not get the hint already.

Ok, maybe his pompous demeanor is funny the first time you watch him. But one good joke is a fleeting experience; it cannot add worthwhile commentary to the main chase sequences in TWO films. I would not like to count his total screen time but anything over a couple of minutes is too much to justify.

If his first appearance was not silly enough (having his car smashed by a flying boat) Pepper's return in the following movie, otherwise one of Moore's best Bond stories, is too ridiculous to fully comprehend - a British secret agent meets the exact same bystander from his previous mission whilst hunting a deadly assassin.

At one moment 007's new friend is working the beat in Louisiana swamplands, the next he is on his holidays with the wife in Thailand. What are the chances? Pepper must be an incredibly lucky man because it would take a financial windfall for a man on his wages to afford a trip to the Far East in 1974.

Admittedly, there have been some awfully dire supporting characters across the 23-film franchise. Yet Live and Let Die's comic creation is so outrageous he makes Mr Wint/Kidd and the random nuclear physicist in Thunderball look like they were written by Mike Leigh.

J.W. is a testament to the repeated mistakes of 1970s MGM Bond. Roger Moore would continue to stretch the realms of belief for another five productions, visiting space and wrestling Grace Jones along the way. The Spy Who Loved Me is partly his best because it lacks the cartoonish sheriff and replaces him with the most famous henchman of all: Jaws.

Imagine what would happen if Pepper ever appeared in a Daniel Craig or Sean Connery movie. I don't see him comin' outta that too well, boy!


Monday, 21 April 2014

The Raid 2 (J.A.)

When The Raid appeared in cinemas two years ago it was a gloriously violent breath of fresh air, giving us unique pulse-pounding action scenes and the sort of gore which for some reason abandoned the action genre in the early 90s. Yet with its excellent if inferior futuristic English language remake Dredd released later that year, and considering pure simplicity of the original, what direction was The Raid franchise to take?  

Traditionally there is a simple equation to sequeldom – if, as in The Raid, real men use fists instead of guns so to dispatch enemies, in the sequel women use hammers. And while this is all true of Raid 2, there is so much more to it. The film instead pulls off what Aliens did, fundamentally changing genres by shifting from pure action flick to action thriller. Our protagonist (Iko Uwais) is forced to go undercover in the seedy underbelly of Jakarta crime lords, in a convoluted story of revenge, betrayal and father and sons, that becomes increasingly and brilliantly doom driven. For this alone Welsh director Gareth Evans deserves credit for not taking the path well trodden, but even more so for the fact that it works shockingly well, proving he is just as capable with dialogue scenes as rampant bloodletting. The visuals also prove as sharp as any of the knives on show, and the whole thing looks simply fantastic. And anyone concerned that there is not going to be enough bloodshed needn’t worry; it’s still there in droves, and frankly it seems unlikely that the fight scenes are going to be bettered anytime soon.

Yet in doing this, the feel of the film has fundamentally changed, and the comparison to Aliens holds on several more levels since the originals to both (Alien and The Raid) worked brilliantly in small, confined territory. It may be all too easy to “admire their purity”, but it is true that The Raid is an extraordinarily simple concept but an exhilarating ride, that carried just as much depth and feeling to make its plot and action feel meaningful and let the choreography do the rest. The sequels are baggier and more complex, leaving a very different taste behind as they try to do more and be about more. Which is not so much a criticism, but an inevitable consequence of expanding so much upon such simplistic concepts as ‘Jaws in Space’ (Alien) or ‘Martial Arts Die Hard’ (The Raid). The Raid 2 is still tense and exhilarating, yet it has lost something. Lacking that streamlined simplicity it does at times feel a bit baggy and very occasionally makes stumbles, which is not entirely surprising given its 150-minute run time.

Yet The Raid 2 - aka The Departed with martial arts – is truly interesting, proving so much more than the straightforward rehash one might expect. While it may lose some purity, the terrific action, tension and constantly growing sense of dread make for one of the most interesting and intriguing sequels in many years. 

James Absolon

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Amazing Spiderman 2

No ordinary Spiderman

"Poor Peter Parker, all alone", taunts a giant humanoid lizard at the end of the first Amazing Spiderman movie. But Dr Connors was wrong; the juvenile web slinger has more connections than any other Marvel character.

If anything, after a quintet of Spidey movies in the last twelve years, the geeky scientist/photographer/hero seemed to be overly exposed. But against this tide of growing audience lethargy, Andrew Garfield returns as Spiderman MK2 in a happily fresh and entertaining comic adaptation.

The arachnid-inspired superhero has not been on this kind of form since Alfred Molina's Doc Ock savaged the spandex-suited Tobey Maguire with his mechanical tentacles. On this occasion, Jamie Foxx provides the main interest as an obsessive nerd who becomes invested with shocking electrical powers after yet another freak accident at Oscorp's science division (when will those guys ever learn?).

Electro is a villain with a more layered personality than most comic book foes. Celebrity status is a condition which he aims to achieve but is unfussy about whether potential fame derives from good or evil deeds. A key scene filmed in Times Square shows how easily this gifted 'weirdo', like his celebrated idol, could have become a hero if only he had been accepted by the public. A misunderstood individual he may be but the idea never becomes painted in such obviously cliché-driven terms.

However, Dane DeHaan's role as multimillionaire Harry Osborn is not treated with the same care as Electro's. Since his character has the most dramatic transformation - from preppy heir to deranged megalomaniac - it is a great shame the writer's could not be more patient with his development. Perhaps his big demise towards insanity would have been better explored if saved for the succeeding film.

This sort-of-sequel has the benefit of being able to avoid the repetition which becomes inevitable when divulging the usual convoluted character origins.  Within the first minute we see our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman in full flow, swinging across the metropolitan skyline in the pursuit of some exceedingly stupid terrorists. Most of the story concerns Parker's troubled relationship with his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Their scenes together work around the more flashy action sequences with affecting pathos and humour. Aunt May is another light supporting role, played with sincerity by the fantastic Sally Field.

As the trailers suggest, Paul Giamatti does briefly appear as a baddie. Nevertheless, the whole pre-publicity concerns over the number of antagonists is conveniently mistaken because giving the Rhino equal billing is like saying Henchman #4 is a Bond villain.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 is a bit of fun which suggests that the story of Peter Parker is still worth being retold. I really hope the third episode in this rebooted franchise (rumoured to be involving Venom - my favourite Spidey villain) can continue the good feeling.


Friday, 18 April 2014


From as far back as his first feature film – the low-budget Pi, which grappled with such themes as the existence of God and the construction of the universe – Darren Aronofsky has bursted with ideas and the desire to explore big themes. In Noah¸ he gets his hands for the first time on a blockbuster-sized budget, and the chance to make the film he has dreamed about since his schooldays. 

Despite the inevitable studio restraints, Aronofsky has done a good job of expressing his singular take on the Noah myth. This is no dutiful retelling of the story in the bible, but rather a pick-and-mix of content from Genesis and some inventions of his own, including a strange, barren landscape far from the usual middle-eastern setting, all of which breathe new life into the oft-told tale.  Neither is the emphasis here on special effects and action-led spectacle – the big set pieces of the animals climbing aboard and the flood itself actually occur surprisingly early in the film, making room for the psychological conflict that Aronofsky is most interested in. 

For this is not a film about swords, sandals and floods, but about a flawed man’s tortured attempts to recognise and deliver what he believes to be God’s will. The title reads Noah rather than Noah’s Ark, after all. God – who is referred to throughout as ‘The Creator’ - is neither seen nor heard, and so Noah (played by the perfectly cast Russell Crowe) must spend much time contemplating the abstract visions sent to him from above, as well as his own faith in working out what must be done.

He concludes, of course, that an ark must be built to save all of the world’s animals from the impending flood that will wipe out sinful mankind. But the real dramatic crux lies in what is to be done with Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and the rest of his family (including Emma Watson’s Ila, who becomes very important late on). Does God wish them to repopulate the world with a new generation of humans, or does he see them merely as agents to ensure the animals’ survival, and who there is no place for in the new world? 

The idea of animals as innocents and man as the sinful creature that must be wiped from the earth constitutes a vegan, environmentalist subtext in the film. Noah and his family are themselves vegetarians, while the villain of the piece Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) pompously proclaims man’s superiority over the animals and their right to eat them. In Noah’s eyes this is one of man’s gravest sins, and, as a vegan himself, Aronofsky presumably sees this as a pressing contemporary issue. 

This angle is typical of Aronofsky’s personal and imaginative take on the source material, but despite all his ideas and the film’s overall weirdness, the film does feel a little flat. The CGI visuals are intricately realised but fail to inspire much awe, while the characters, despite being well-rounded and morally complex, are explored nowhere as deeply as the protagonists in the director’s last two works, Black Swan and The Wrestler. Neither is there anything of the playfulness of form found in Requiem for a Dream, and the director’s trademark visceral imagery and hallucinogenic sequences have inevitably been toned down for a 12A certificate. 

As a big-budget flick it’s a solid evening’s entertainment, and as an artistic reimagining of a biblical story it’s a curiosity, but Noah is perhaps Aronofsky’s least interesting work to date. As someone so talented in the visceral, provocative aspects of cinema, perhaps his talents are better suited to lower-budget, independent films. 


Monday, 14 April 2014

The Double

Double, double toil and trouble

Despite being named after and officially an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Double, Richard Ayoade’s second feature film draws upon a substantial DVD collection.

The plot loosely follows the same trajectory as the Russian source material – an anxious young man failing to climb the career ladder one day encounters a man who looks exactly like him, but is more charismatic and successful – but Ayoade appropriates ideas from an array of influences, from Aki Kaurismaki to Orson Welles.

In fact, such is the prevalence of these cine-literate allusions that the film is itself – in a manner of speaking – comprised of multiple ‘doubles’ of the works referenced. But, like the doppelganger that haunts the protagonist Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, who does a fine job distinguishing between his two characters) in the film, these doubles are not simple exact replicas of what came before, but instead are infused with Ayoade’s dark sense of humour and are given new meanings.

For instance, although he draws upon the simultaneously dreary and surreal Kafkaesque dystopia of Terry Gillian’s Brazil, the world created in The Double, with its vague metropolitan setting and disorientating blend of1950s, 1980s and contemporary technology, is distinctly Ayoade’s.

Similarly, when the director makes an explicit reference to Rear Window by having Simon watch his neighbours in their apartments though his telescope, he builds upon Hitchcock’s original premise rather than simply copying it; when, as in the famous moment in the 1954 film (, Simon sees someone looking back at him through the telescope, this time the observed man his own set of binoculars, and shockingly jumps from his room to his death.

The implication here is that the alienated society the characters live in, where business commitments and urban ennui stifle meaningful interaction, breeds people who  connect to people passively by observing them from afar, and that such disengagement ultimately leads to suicide. That suicide is a commonality in the world of the film is made explicit in one typically blackly comic scene, when the death of the man who jumped from his window is investigated by a suicide unit, established by the police to deal with the endemic in the city.

“You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” asks one of them of Simon. 


“...put him down as a maybe”

Simon is the victim through which we experience the disaffection of society. Lonely and frustrated by his lack of status in the office, Simon’s situation is much like Jack Lemmon’s character Baxter in The Apartment (another film in which the spectre of suicide looms large). Both protagonists also share is an office crush that occupies their thoughts even more than status-climbing, but unlike Baxter who actively pursues his love interest, Simon only worships from afar – usually it is her (Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska) who he watches with his telescope.

By only passively observing her and the rest of the world (which, incidentally, is emerging as something of a recurring motif of Ayoade’s following the strange way the main character in his first feature Submarine would spy on his parents), Simon barely seems to exist, and is frequently ignored and forgotten by his colleagues. His doppelganger demonstrates how assertiveness succeeds in this world, as he goes about attaining everything Simon desires for himself, leaving him yet further frustrated at his apparent inability to escape from the shadows and properly exist.

At just 93 minutes in length Ayoade keeps things punchy and straightforward, and resists going into the stranger territory such source material may have invited, say, David Lynch to explore. Instead the climax becomes something of a battle of wills between Simon and his double, and perhaps the film would have benefited from exploring the more surreal possibilities of the premise.  Nonetheless The Double is an intriguing watch with a mischievous schadenfreude sense of humour, terrific soundtrack and an immaculately realised distinctive world.


Friday, 11 April 2014

The Raid 2 (SP)

 “It’s a question of ambition, really” are the first words spoken in The Raid 2: Berandal, and, as a statement of intent, applies as much to the film itself as it does to the characters in it. Whereas the exhilarating first film (The Raid: Redemption) was held within the confines of a thin plot, a hundred minute running time and a single apartment block, its sequel aspires to be far grander in scale.

Has it reached too far? The extra hours running time allows for much more plot, and director Gareth Evans has weaved together a lengthy crime saga around which he constructs his action set-pieces. The hero Rama (Iko Uwais), having defeated the occupants of the tower block in the first film, is convinced to go undercover in the criminal underworld of Jakarta, where he bears witness to the brutal violence, ruthless double-crossing and  – that word again – reckless ambition of the gangsters who populate the city.

Its story far from attains the kind of thematic richness and pathos of its obvious major influence The Godfather, but is compelling nonetheless, with tense encounters  and sneering antagonists aplenty. 

What makes the film an instant classic of the martial arts genre is its extraordinary action set-pieces.  Crucially, Evans never allows ambition to cloud the fact that it was the brilliant choreography and inventive cinematography that made the original such a success, and the plot in Berandal still largely functions as a means to the end of yet another thrillingly executed fight scene. 

Anyone who hasn’t seen the original (and who can stomach 18-rated violence) will be blown away by the film’s kinetic, bloody, ultra-violent, ultra-stylised aesthetic, while fans of the first film will be ecstatic to learn that Evans still has plenty of fresh ideas. Highlights include a mud-soaked prison riot, a pair of cartoony villains called Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl, and possibly the best car chase since The French Connection

Some scenes of exposition and character development can drag on a little, and there’s nothing that carries the dramatic weight of, say, a horse’s head found under the bed covers. But the action scenes as well as the ritualistic moments that immediately precede outbreaks of violence – are like nothing else you’ll find on the big screen, and makes The Raid 2: Berandal essential viewing for genre enthusiasts.