Bombshell 2019 ****

bombAmerican politics looks different at home from abroad; European media has a liberal outlook, and tends to play up an unconscious bias that’s permanently pro Democrat and con Republican. Thus when Donald Trump talks about the world’s media being against him, he’s got a point. Every Republican president in recent memory has been hailed as the worst thing ever, whether Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr or Jr, they all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles.

Jay Roach’s Bombshell’s subject is Fox News, and the goal is to dramatise well-documented sexual harassment issues. These are comparatively recent history, so recent that two of the characters featured are Donald Trump and Rudi Guiliani, the former evoked using actual footage, the latter by an actor. Both are, at the time of writing, still active and involved in the American political scene, but are casually described here as a passing demagogue and his above-the-law fixer. With US politics in a somewhat explosive mode in 2020 election year, it feels like a shame that Roach didn’t feel the time was right to address the Trump-Giuliani axis in more detail, since their contribution to American life is still a hot issue.

Instead, we’re introduced to a selection of big tv names who are completely unknown outside of America; Host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), departing matriarch Gretchen Karlson (Nicole Kidman) and composite ingénue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Karlson is heading out the door, but willing to bring down the Fox News channel behind her; Kayla is the audience surrogate, a young woman being rapidly brought up to date on Fox News’s style, which is described in Charles Randolph’s script as pure sensation; news deliberately described in a way that would involve an aging parent. Kayla is also brought up to date on the way her boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) operates, and accepts that being a victim of sexual harassment may get her what she wants. But as Kayla and Gretchen begin to understand that their experiences are similar, it’s left to Megyn Kelly to confront her own past, connect the dots and uncover a systematic cover-up of loose morals and male domination.

Bombshell works as an expose of what happens when men call the shots; these women all look and sound like ball-breakers, but they’re denied anything but the illusion of agency by slavering men. Roach has a rep for this kind of work, with Recount and Game Change both managing a similar ripped-from-the-headlines approach. As an awards contender, Bombshell is pretty much hobbled by being a film written and directed by men about the importance of listening to women’s voices; one of the best lines mentions a Fox News harassment hotline, which is described as being as useful as a complaints-box in Nazi occupied France. But even if the punches are muted, there’s tonnes going on here and most of it is interesting, from Kate McKinnon’s suppressed lesbian to Malcolm MacDowell’s Rupert Murdoch, channelling late period Mick Travis as a journeyman who has travelled too far from his comfort zone.

Bombshell isn’t boring, but neither is it as explosive as yesterday’s news; the asides are more stimulating than the main plot, which is too schematic to fully land. A gross of nearly $30 million domestic proves that the public are interested, although whether minds are changes is a different matter. There will be better films about sexual-harassment, Fox News, Trump and Giuliani, but Bombshell is salacious enough to be going on with for now.

Long Shot 2019 ***

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When Seth Rogen first appeared in a puff of dubious smoke, he offered a new type of male lead for the 2010’s. A slob, a stoner, but also a decent guy and a buddy, someone to pal around with, Rogen’s charms worked well in Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and Bad Neighbours, but less so when squeezed into vehicles like The Green Hornet. Long Shot is a romantic comedy set in the world of politics, re-uniting Rogen with director Jonathan Levine, who worked with him on 50/50. The role of Fred Flarsky, a shambolic political activist/journalist who ends up writing speeches for Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) suits Rogen fine, but more problematic elements let Long Shot down.

Probably the biggest issue here is that 2019’s political landscape is so extreme that fiction can hardly keep up; a throwaway line about ‘gay marriage causing earthquakes’ is about as close at Long Shot gets to addressing Donald Trump’s tenure. Instead, there’s a very weak joke about the president (Bob Odenkirk) wanting to give up the White House to re-ignite his acting career; such quaint vanities are not the ones an audience will likely recognise as current. As Fred and Charlotte navigate various foreign backdrops and put aside their differences to fall in love, there’s little satire or commentary, just some fairly goofy rom-com antics. Things liven up when corporate forces attempt to blackmail Charlotte into dumping Fred, and a positive message about truth just about gets out. But the equation of Fred’s enthusiasm for self-stimulation with the hidden mistresses of US presidents feels like a stretch, and repeated use of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love from Pretty Woman suggests a bald attempt to push the audience’s buttons by evoking ancient glories in the rom-com genre.

Worse still, a sequence in which Charlotte has to defuse a potentially life-threatening hostage situation while ‘accidentally’ under the influence of molly is exactly the kind of tired, contrived wackiness that Rogen’s blunt approach once seemed to be the perfect antidote to. Two likable stars keep Long Shot watchable, but it’s a shame the script goes low when it should be soaring high.

Mad Max Fury Road 2015 *****

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George Miller’s rethinking/reboot/rebirth of the Australian Road warrior previously played by Mel Gibson really does merit the description ‘one long chase’. Tom Hardy fills the leathers well, sharing the duties as lead with Charlize Theron. The feminist subtext, completely missing from previous incarnations, feels surprisingly organic, with seeds and water the new currency in a world where gasoline is only used for local warfare, and wise women and concubines making up the manifest of Max’s group of escapees from the Toecutter and his gang. A model of how a reboot can move with the times and gain more depth, Fury Road picks up nicely where Mad Max 2; The Road Warrior left off.

Mighty Joe Young 1998 ***

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A remake of the old RKO movie, Ron Underwood’s 1998 re-imaging in a lush and family friendly movie that plays up the affection between Joe and Jill Young (Charlize Theron). Transported from Africa to Hollywood, Joe is disconcerted by all the noise (he takes a dislike to car alarms) and years for his sweetheart Jill, who he has enjoyed a decade in the jungle with. Theron has proved her chops as an actress elsewhere, but she’s a perfect heroine for this Disney film, looking luminously beautiful and believable as the girl that Joe will do anything for. A surprising flop, Mighty Joe Young is a charming family film, delivered with as much sensitivity as a love-struck giant gorilla can muster. Ray Harryhausen has a cameo that gives the impressive effects a stamp of approval.

Reindeer Games 2001 ***

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There’s a black Christmas in store for everyone in John Frankenheimer’s final cinematic release, a grungy thriller that found little favour with audiences or critics, but has considerable virtues as a B Movie. Ex-con Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) takes on the identity of his cell-mate Nick (James Frain) when he’s killed in a prison riot, but when he comes out of the slammer, his new persona leads Rudy to get involved with a casino heist organized by Gabriel (Gary Sinese), whose sister Ashley (Charlize Theron) was writing to Nick in jail. The casino raid itself, with the robbers dressed as Santa Claus, has a considerable bloody punch, and even if the cast seem over-qualified for the low-rent action, Reindeer games has a stark, memorably downbeat quality to it.

Snow White and the Hunstman 2012 ***

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Kristen Stewart’s development as an actress was clear from her growing confidence in her portrayal of Bella in the Twilight films; her rise from virgin to vampire matriarch is quite a curve, and Stewart proved more than up to it. Casting her as Snow White gave her an ideal opportunity to demonstrate her range in Rupert Sanders revision of the classic fairy-tale, with Charlize Theron as the villainous queen and Chris Hemsworth as the huntsman she teams up with. The ads and publicity for the film emphasized the romance between them, omitting the dwarves with are superbly rendered and played by stalwart performers like Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins. Sanders works wonders with the effects, and the script (by Saving Mr Banks’s John Lee Hancock amongst others) is smart and intelligent; the final shot suggests’s that Snow White’s triumph may also be her downfall, but this is one of the few special-effects extravaganzas compelling enough to make a sequel a welcome prospect.

The Italian Job 2003 ***

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For anyone British, the 1969 version of The Italian Job is a cultural cornerstone, a cinematic testament to the idea of the UK conquering all. Not surprisingly, F Gary Gray’s 2003 version takes a different tack, with Charlie Croker now played by Mark Wahlberg and the use of Minis in a heist setting the only specific callback. As generic thrillers go, the new Italian Job has plenty to offer, with Donald Sutherland, Jason Stratham and Charlize Theron all on board, making up from Edward Norton’s disinterested villain. It may not be have the same daft patriotism as its predecessor, but The Italian Job makes for a smooth ride, and is one of the few films that were worth a sequel that didn’t get one.