Firepower 1979 ***

Producer Lew Grade certainly had an eye for a bad movie; ponying up for The Cassandra Crossing, Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic indicates a complete lack of discernment , and presumably that’s what led him to the door of director Michael Winner. Even Winner’s successes, notably Death Wish, are in dubious taste, but his worst efforts have to be seen to be believed, and Firepower is pretty bad. Originally developed as a Dirty Harry movie, Firepower is a shambolic violent caper movie set in a drab looking Caribbean. James Coburn plays Jerry Fanon, a gun-for-hire who agrees to locate and secure reclusive businessman Carl Stegner, teaming up with Adela Tasca (Sophia Loren) who wants revenge on the billionaire for personal reasons. With the film-makers imagination seemingly taken up by thinking of strange character names like Manley Reckford, securing appearances by Jake LaMotta and OJ Simpson, blowing up buildings or demolishing them with bulldozers, there’s little chance for old-timers like Eli Wallach or Vincent Gardenia to shine. The final action scenes have a couple of great shots to recommend them, but most of Firepower is notable only as a repository of disinterested performances and seemingly improvised quirks; Loren’s ability to make scrambled egg sandwiches is her most interesting trait, while Coburn unwisely play two characters in the same scene without any special effects; Winner’s inability to frame the two characters convincingly reduces this scene, like many others here, into a Godardian mush of incoherence. There’s a lot going on in Firepower, but not much of it is in front of the camera; a brief glimpse of Victor Mature with green hair tops things off with just the right bizarre note in time for the closing credits. And any film which has a specific credit for saxophone solos deserves a  special mention in dispatches;  slathered over the locations like a cheap balm, these moments of musical noodling turn the stomach and yet tickle the mind with their awfulness, much like Winner himself.

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Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood 2019 *****

Few films have had as little similarity to expectations as Inglorious Bastards; what was touted as a ‘men on a mission’ movie along the lines of The Dirty Dozen turned out to have a remarkably meandering narrative including one lengthy scene in which characters, never seen before or again, play charades in the cellar of a bar for quite a chunk of time. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film takes a similarly picaresque approach; with two big stars, we assume a buddy comedy/bromance with the Manson family killings lurking somewhere in the background or foreground. That’s not at all what gets delivered, and that’s a good thing; alarm bells rang when Tarantino announced the setting (year, place) or this film, but Charles Manson is only fleetingly depicted and the actual killings are thankfully not within the film’s scope. That’s not to say that Once Upon doesn’t examine in granular detail exactly what Tarantino imagines was going-down between hippies, cults and conservatives in 1969, the film just doesn’t examine them in the way we expect. Instead, we have a rollercoaster ride, one that takes so long to get started that most thrill-seekers will be ready to demand their money back, then accelerates to a surprising climax so vigorous and satisfying the customers are left begging for another go round. As Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio look older and rather less cool than in previous ventures, but the coolness they embody is earned rather than cosmetic. They knock around a sun-kissed Hollywood, but their lives are less than glamorous; Dalton struggles to remember his lines on set while Booth dutifully repairs his tv antennae. The action slows to a crawl to cover non-events such as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to the cinema, Dalton reading a book while chatting to a child actor, or Booth feeding his dog. But each of these scenes, long, protracted and seemingly meaningless, turn out to imbue the tale with significant value by the final scene, which like Pulp Fiction, carves out a happy ending in the face of an known tragedy. Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood has got the impacted layers of a great film; there’s a thousand minor details to be patiently unpacked, and a unique picture once the jigsaw is finally assembled. Sociologically-aware moments like Booth’s gradual realisation of the manner in which a familiar ranch as been co-opted by hippies have a haunting, original angle on history that’s completely out of tune with the shallow, derivative approach that most film-makers take to their material. If True Romance was a Greatest Hits package, Once Upon a Time…sees a lauded, popular artist finally finding their own unique voice.

The Informer 2020 ****

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Set for a U.S. release in January 2020, The Informer is a tough, old school crime opus that’s been delayed several times, but is well worth the wait. Andrea di Stefano’s thriller is sold on its connections to Sicario and John Wick, but there’s a down-and-dirty feel about the espionage featured here that’s located somewhere bwteen Homeland and John le Carre. Joel Kinnaman plays Peter Koslow, a special ops undercover agent who is embedded in an FBI mission to shake-down drugs elements in the NYC/Polish community. Koslow has a wife (Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas) and kid to protect, so when a routine pick-up of a diplomatic bag full of drugs goes south, Koslow is forced to witness the death of a cop. This brings in interest from the NYPD’s Grens (rapper Common), who is keen to find out how the cop died and who is responsible; Koslow’s handlers (Rosamund Pike and Clive Owens) seek to contain the mess, but Koslow engineers his own passage out via an audacious prison break. Based on the novel Three Seconds by Roslund/Hellstrom, The Informer’s generic title hides a sober, intensely gripping thriller that’s something of an antidote to much of the silver-screen’s childish fare; the fights are brutal and the stakes are high. Look elsewhere for choreography and stunts, because The Informer makes a virtue of feeling like a real-world story. With a well-known cast well used for once, The Informer’s hard-as-nails attitude makes it one of the best thrillers of the year.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold 2019 ***

There are, to put it mildly, a few odd turns in James Bobin’s adaptation of the famous Nickelodeon tv show. An opening title card focusing the attention of young minds of the issues of stereotyping? Talking monkeys and foxes, voiced by Danny Trejo and Benicio del Toro? A little strange but….a lengthy slam on rave culture delivered by Michael Pene complete with a human mouth beat-box performance of a rave tune? How about an animated sequence when the main characters are hallucinating on some mysterious jungle substance that makes Eugenio Deberez’s character want to strip naked and run through the jungle? This version of Dora has a lot going for it, not least the ideal Dora in the form of Instant Family’s Isabela Moner, who manages to make her bright without being insufferable. But even the main plot, which gives Dora a mission to survive in the jungle of a LA school, seems a little off message, and the venomous behaviour of the villains who kidnap her seems rather mean. Emphasis of breaking wind, toilet breaks and swearing also seems a little lowest common denominator. But the second half of the film, where the puzzles and intrigue take over, gets Dora onto more solid ground. Perhaps the rather muted box-office reception for Dora indicates a failure to appeal to the young female demographic intended; by aiming at so many different targets, Bobin’s film doesn’t focus enough on satisfying anyone. And the distinction between exploring and treasure hunting, carefully made to tick environmental boxes, feels like we’re being lectured when we should be outside enjoying ourselves. Still, this Dora is enough fun to be going on with, and its goody-two-shoes heroine is probably preferable to the sexist stereotypes of Jumanji.

Angel Has Fallen 2019 ****

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Mike Banning (Gerry Butler) is a burnt-out case. His health is failing, his emotional range is narrowing, he barely recognises his own wife. Of course, that could be because she’s not played by the same actress (Radha Mitchell) as in the first two films, Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen, but Banning’s loyalty to the President is unshakable. Aaron Eckhart clearly didn’t fancy a third outing either, so Morgan Freeman is hurriedly sworn in as Commander In Chief Allan Trumbull for Ric Roman Waugh’s cheeky and entertaining film. Trumbull comes under attack from an airborne army of explosive drones, and in the eyes of the authorities, Banning is linked to this treasonous act of terrorism. Fleeing the scene, Banning hides out with his estranged dad, played by Nick Nolte in a full Yosemite Sam/Dirty Santa/prospector peeing–through-his-knee length beard get-up (‘I don’t do medication,’ says Nolte, in a knowing wink to the audience). Banning and his dad set out to find out who was responsible, while FBI agent Jada Pinkett Smith is in hot pursuit in the style of The Fugitive. Although various personnel have jumped ship, Angel Has Fallen is easily the best of the trilogy, and arguably Butler’s best action film yet. Decent support (Danny Huston, Tim Blake Nelson) and improved action scenes including a truck chase through a forest, and a slam-bang shoot-out in a high-tech hospital climax that really deliver the goods. And hewn-from-granite leading man Butler is the happy centre that a straight-forward action movie requires; lily-livered liberal film critics may scoff, but a big man, a big gun and instant justice will make Angel Has Fallen a guilty pleasure for all sides of the political spectrum.

Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land 2019 ****

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Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land is the somewhat lugubrious title for this highly-accessible New Zealand documentary which deals with the much misunderstood subject of medieval combat. Renaissance fairs has been the butt of jokes for decades now; we’re conditioned to laugh at men fighting in costume, although given that they’re physically active, they’re competitive, they’re creative, they’re motivated and getting exercise out in the open air, there’s probably a lot worse that a jock or a geek could do with his time. This is not live-action role-playing with elves and mages, but a physical content involving weapons, armoury and real risks; Andy Deere and Ryan Heron’s film shows armour unceremoniously cut off by medics as participants are whisked to A and E.

Audiences may come to scoff, but while the film-makers accept that there’s humour involved here, Bludgeon wisely doesn’t go down that road. Evoking a medieval quest with animated chapter headings, Bludgeon kicks off with Nick Waiariki, a Kiwi who is trying out for the Steel Thorns group of fighters. With infectious enthusiasm, Waiariki serves as a guide for the novice as to the rules and ethos of the sport. He clearly loves loves talking about it, and it would be churlish to deny the sincerity of his glee in getting close to the New Zealand team, who are limbering up for a world-wide competition in Denmark.

Deere and Heron cleverly disguise some of the details, keeping us keen to find out exactly what the various trials and competitions will look like. And there are visual flourishes, sight-gags naturally generated by the nature of the activity; a knight in armour running on a treadmill, another emerges from a medieval tent pulling a suitcase on wheels. The film-makers chose to frame some of the action with modern elements like parked cars in the background, but as the film goes on and the size of the events increases, the intrusive elements are side-lined and a more immersive environment is detailed. As the veterans gather to look back on a battle, we cut to a wonderful view over a tented village at sunset that appears to be torn from a medieval manuscript; the film suggests the spiritual Valhalla that the men seek, and rewards their quest.

The many who enjoy the comic stylings of Taika Waititi will find amusements here; the Steel Thorns accidentally lock themselves out of their Air B and B, and talk of ‘wench fights’ and ‘international knight marshals’ can’t help but raise a smile. But Bludgeon manages to rehabilitate the public image of a genuine sport that seems to have been unfairly maligned; this likable documentary should appears to sports fans and Game of Thrones aficionados alike, and cuts through prejudices like a flaming sword.

Pain and Glory 2019 ***

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Sooner or later, the critic Clive James once noted, every artist feels the need to give us something of themselves. Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Pain and Glory, might as well be titled All About Myself; the subject is Salvador Mallo, an aging Spanish film director (Antonio Banderas) who has various health worries, and is wrestling with the creative process; he’s unwilling to work, and seeks escape through smoking heroin with an actor he’d previously fallen out with. While under the chemical cosh, Mallo falls into a reverie about his early life, recognising what a gifted individual he was, recounting his first attraction to men, and fondly remembering how much his mother (Penelope Cruz) did for him when they were reduced by poverty to living in a cave with whitewashed walls. It’s hardly a surprise that Almodovar should lapse into such navel-gazing and ‘I remember mama’ sentiment, but it’s hardly cause for celebration; the creativity that drove Volver, Live Flesh or The Skin I Live In is absent here, and there’s a lot of self-pity. Of course, Almodovar has a few games to play ‘You would never let me make a film about you’ Mallo tells his mother, yet the audience already know that motherhood is as much a staple of the director’s work as colourful kitchens and eye-popping decor. Still, Cruz is always something to beyond under the great man’s direction, and Banderas is excellent, wincing with pain as he surveys a life suddenly emptying of character and good times. Pain & Glory is one of these ‘artistic summation; the wonder of me’ films so beloved by Fellini and Cocteau; essential for fans, but perhaps a little dry and self-absorbed for the general public.