Charlie’s Angels 2019 NA (no award)

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How hard can it be to make a Charlie’s Angels movie? This 2019 version ain’t your momma’s Charlie’s Angels, in fact, is really isn’t anyone’s Charlie’s Angels at all; Elizabeth Banks’ continuation of the benighted franchise has been the very definition of a dud, an expensive, heavily promoted comedy/thriller that no-one outside of Variety’s critic seems to want.

The industry trade-paper generally aims for some kind of salty accuracy in their reviews, but it’s hard to match up the movie under discussion with this description ; ‘written and directed, by Elizabeth Banks as if she’d been making cheeky renegade action films all her life. The movie is relentless, it’s pulpy and exciting, it’s unabashedly derivative…rousingly of-the-moment feministic…ace car-chase filmmaking — breathless and ultra-violent, with big mounted weapons…awesomely elaborate action sequence that unfolds in a quarry…’ Instead, Charlie’s Angels has all the breathless, awesome action of Pitch Perfect 3 or The Spy Who Dumped Me, generic, anonymous fodder with phoned-in performances, dull green-screen punch-ups and no discernable flavour. It wouldn’t seem possible to disrespect such vanilla source material, but somehow Banks manages it.

The problem starts from the packaging. As a tv show, Charlie’s Angels made stars of the girls in the central roles, and they became household names. The cinematic reboot brought Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu to the roles, an update if not necessarily an upgrade. But how would you feel about the Angels being played by someone like, pause to consult notes, Naomi Scott? She was in Aladdin, right? Or what about, he googles quickly, Ellen Balinska? What would an actress whose claim to fame is brief appearances on Casualty and Midsommar Murders bring to the party? No pop culture frisson whatsoever is the answer. Charlie’s Angels needs three stars, big, or fading, or upcoming, just recognisable names. Would you fancy The Magnificent Seven with a cast of unknowns? Ocean’s 11 with a semi-professional cast? The producers on this film had one job, and they don’t seem to have taken it that seriously. Almost anyone would be better than the girls chosen here.

Kristen Stewart is the only element here that’s on point; she’s a big star who has successfully shunned blockbuster roles since Twilight in favour of great performances in small movies, and seems to have chosen unwisely here. She’s introduced as a swaggering super-spy called Sabina, and bonds with the other girls while on a confusing assignment situated in drag Hamburg dockland, one that involves the death of contact/wrangler Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) and a memory stick landing in a river. From there, the action flips to Istanbul, another locations worn smooth by spy movies, where a racetrack meeting provides the Angels with a chance at revenge. Another Bosley (Banks) is feeding the girls instructions, but could a third Bosley (Patrick Stewart) be sabotaging their mission?

Whatever the actual DNA was of the tv show and movies so far, Banks screws around with it to mind-numbing effect. How many Charlies are there? How many Bosleys? How does it help for us to see one Bosley cheaply photoshopped into still photographs from the previous Angels films and tv shows? Meanwhile Sam Clafin plays an Elon Musk-type zillionaire who has invented a generic McGuffin energy source that provides the uninteresting stakes for muddled punch ups and chases. The result is a movie that sinks like a stone, with some nice costumes about the only thing that passes muster.

Charlie’s Angels was, in its prime, a lazy chauvinist show that invited men (and women) to gawp at weapons-grade models under the guise of a detective thriller; somewhere between Baywatch and The Rockford Files. Re-nose this property with some girl-power feminism and you have nothing at all, two over-riding philosophies in chauvinism and feminism that simply don’t gel. New wine is old bottles is one thing, but the 2019 version of Charlie’s Angels is the weakest of weak sauce.

Our Man Flint 1966 ****

Our-Man-Flint-posterPerhaps a ‘franchises of yesteryear’ tag is required for the Derek Flint IP, now forgotten, but originally conceived and executed with the aim of giving James Bond a run for his money. The two Flint films are parodies of the Bond universe, but not out-and-out parody like the Austin Powers films; for the many who grew up with Our Man Flint as a Saturday night tv staple, there wasn’t much to choose between the laconic due of Flint and Bond.

Certainly, Fox got the right man for the job in terms of James Coburn. Already a household name from The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, Coburn was a lithe, charismatic leading man, ideal for a super-spy like Flint. Flint is portrayed as a ladies man, obviously, but also a martial arts guru, a fitness freak, a master of weapons and has a Holmesian gift for science and detection. Most significantly of all, Flint is American; in the first film, he notes an eagle used for nefarious purposes ‘An Anti-American eagle, that’s diabolical!’ he muses, and it’s clear that Flint is a home-grown US studio riposte to the Bond stiff-upper lip.

Our Man Flint takes a while to get going, with Flint engaging in a number of minor side-missions in his efforts to represent ZOWIE, the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage in their battle against the fiendish GALAXY, who are using the weather to hold the world to ransom; strangling a thug named Hans Gruber in a toilet stall in Marseilles is probably the highlight. But once the action shifts to Galaxy island, a remote encampment where women are hypnotised into being pleasure units as a brand extension for Galaxy, whose motto is “Communication and Control’, Our Man Flint hits a more swaggering gear. Derek Flint infiltrates their compound and whispers ‘You are not a pleasure unit’ to the many bikini-clad girls inside, a white male saviour to lead a feminist revolution.

Our Man Flint is one of the best off-brand Bond variations, with an excellent leading man, a slightly different angle, and a climax that’s certainly in the right ball-park in terms of combatting excess with excess; the Galaxy compound, complete with an aerial monorail, is something to beyond, as are the rather cool jumpsuits that Coburn wears. On this evidence, there’s plenty to suggest that Flint could have rivalled Bond, but alas, a cut-price sequel cut off the oxygen before Our Man could really breathe.

Salt and Pepper 1968 ***

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Continuing with my selective Sammy Davis Junior season, this Richard Donner film was presumably enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, One More Time in 1970. There’s something of a lurch of tone between the two films, much like the one between Our Man Flint and In Like Flint; the sequels killed each franchise by toning down the expensive action and doubling down on silly comedy. Salt and Pepper plays better than One More Time, yet there’s still more than enough cultural dissonance to make it a revealing snapshot of swinging sixties mores.

Salt and Pepper are Sammy Davis Junior and Peter Lawford, two nightclub owners in London’s seedy Soho district, a ‘legitimate sewer’ says Pepper. There’s quite a few exterior shots which give a picture of the strip-joints and clubs at presumably a prosperous time for exploiting women, an establishment called The Strip-It features largely. The characters are always in trouble with the law, and the laughs start when a Chinese call-girl is murdered in the club. This sparks action, in that the boys have to find the real killer before the police pin the killing on them, but it’s also notable that there’s no sense of gravity or sadness about a woman’s death. In fact, it’s genuinely disturbing that Pepper attempts to chat up the girl, unaware that she’s dying; ‘She’s stoned,’ says Pepper. ‘Maybe god has sent us a gift?’ asks Salt with a cheeky smile. ‘No, we’ll return this package unwrapped,’ says Salt, as if passing up an opportunity to force themselves on semi-unconscious women was something unusual and sad.

Salt and Pepper has a real setting, but the behaviour captured is extreme and cartoonish, an issue which is never resolved. Comic subjects include such jovialities as police station bombings, and the japes run all the way up to government level where we see the prime minister prepare to fire nuclear weapons on Scotland for reasons too convoluted to explain. Lionel Blair stages a musical number while Jeremy Lloyd, Graham Stark and Geoffrey Lumsden wander around as Central Casting stuffy Brits. John Le Mesurier plays a villain complete with a pirate’s eye-patch, pursuing Sammy and Pete as they scoot down Carnaby Street around in a yellow mini-moke kitted out with oil slicks, machine guns and other familiar accoutrements.

Donner would go on to capture another racially charged partnership in Lethal Weapon, but judged by today’s standards, Salt and Pepper is notable as one of cinema’s most  cess-pits of toxic masculinity. It’s not just women that are treated as a non-precious commodity. ‘I was a fag here for two years,’ says Pepper of his alma mater, prompting some world-class bug-eyed mugging from Salt and the reply ‘You’re secret is safe with me.’ White, heterosexual men rule the roost, set the agenda, and everyone else is just decoration. MeToo has licenced a few sanctimonious bores, but if you want to see why such movements are absolutely necessary, Salt and Pepper captures the rancil feel of a time, leaving the worst possible taste in your mouth.

https://www.amazon.com/Salt-Pepper-Sammy-Davis/dp/B0096HLH00/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=salt+and+pepper+1968&qid=1573379365&sr=8-2

Official Secrets 2019 ****

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In 2019, controversy is a famous actor pretending to have a brain injury, dancing to the music of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. A thriller accusing British and American governments of blackmailing small countries into supporting an illegal war in which million die barely creates a ripple. Times change; the kind of covert behaviour that a film like Official Secrets attempts to uncover is now shouted to the press from the White House lawn.

The man and his dog in the street now know that the Iraq war was instigated under false pretences; Gavin Hood’s film is, at least, a timely reminder of that unhappy truth. Based on the lugubriously titled book The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War; Katharine Gunn and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, Official Secrets may be raking over material that is cold potatoes, but as a look at what the personal consequences might be for a whistle-blower, it’s prescient and timely. Gunn (Keira Knightley) works at GCHQ and happens on an email from the US attempting to blackmail small countries into supporting a war via their UN vote. She takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Gunn’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.

Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal centre; after a couple of duds in the form of Colette and The Aftermath, Hood’s film makes good use of her national treasure quality; with lank hair, chunky knitwear and unflattering anoraks, she’s a dowdy figure ideal for these kind of down-beat shenanigans. There’s a decent support cast including the perennially underused Matthew Goode, but there’s also some shonky details that distracts; the newspaper office Bright works in doesn’t feel right at all, a cartoonish affair featuring shouty, sweary editors and sniping, pencil-pushing underlings.

Leaving such details aside, Official Secrets is a better-than-average spy story that never takes leave of its sense of outrage; watching the characters curse as Bush and Blair waltz across their tv screens, it’s a reminder of yesterday’s news, and how it might inform that radically different political problems of today. Gunn is lionised by this film; the point is that unless the public pay attention and act, the bad guys will always win the day.

The Amateur 1981 ****

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Reputed to be in development as a reboot for Hugh Jackman for a good few years now, Charles Jarrott’s The Amateur is a tense, effective revenge thriller than makes the best of its mix of cold-blooded espionage and hot-blooded anger. A sense of righteous grievance is harnessed by a shocking opening as a terrorist gang storm the American embassy in West Germany and execute an American (Sarah Kaplan) while being filmed by live-tv crews. Widower Charles Heller (John Savage) is no secret agent, his speciality is mathematics and decoding messages, but when the CIA intelligence forces that he works for don’t respond for political reasons, Heller takes things into his own hands by infiltrating Eastern Bloc spy-networks in the hope of finding who killed his wife. This is all rather more plausaible that usual, Heller uses his ability to hack into the CIA files to find declassified information and force the CIA to offer him some grudging support by blackmailing them; The Amateur makes a virtue of its savvy view of dirty black ops. Christopher Plummer, Marthe Keller and Arthur Hill are all names familiar to genre fans, and Robert Littell’s screenplay ducks many of the clichés expected. The Amateur seems to have been taken out of the system for some reason; just for fun, below is included a link to purchase a DVD for a cool $100 plus. Why that should be so high is an interesting question; The Amateur does a violent but professional wet job that should have left more of a cultural imprint than it did.

https://www.amazon.com/Amateur-John-Savage/dp/B0007WQGW2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=the+amateur&qid=1564310377&s=gateway&sr=8-3

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-amateur-1981

The Osterman Weekend 1989 ****

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It must be something of a surprise to those who knew the late actor Rutger Hauer to read obituaries like this (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-49098435) which show almost no knowledge of the man or his films. Hauer came to prominence as a cinema actor of phenomenal power, working on a series of collaborations with Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven such as Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange, both of which are covered elsewhere in this blog. His celebrated turn in The Legend of the Holy Drinker is probably his most mature work, but the stardom that he gained from villianous turns opposite Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks or in The Hitcher made him a bankable enough name to get him a role in Sam Peckinpah’s final film The Osterman Weekend. Adapted from Robert  “Bourne Identity” Ludlum’s book, it’s a Big Brother-type story of various espionage agents holed up in a remote house where micro-surveillance systems have been employed. Hauer plays tv journalist John Tanner, who is being manipulated at arms length by CIA chief Maxwell Danforth. It’s one of Hauer’s most substantial roles, with an ahead-of-its-time conceit and great support from John Hurt, Dennis Hopper and Craig T Nelson. The script is a little muddled, with writer Alan Sharp amongst those fighting Peckinpah’s famed desire for self-sabotage. That none of the above films get even a single mention in the above obituary suggests that Peckinpah’s pessimism was justified ; The Osterman Weekend nails the idea of media manipulation, and its concerns are still relevant today.

https://www.amazon.com/Osterman-Weekend-Rutger-Hauer/dp/B00AQ1N4KQ/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=osterman+weekend&qid=1563992971&s=gateway&sr=8-1

 

Mission Impossible: Fallout 2018 *****

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The Mission Impossible formula has improved with each film, to the point where Rogue Nation was a franchise high. About the only problem with Fallout is that it replicates the elements of the previous film so specifically, but that’s hardly a problem when a perfect summer blockbuster is the result. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is once again thrown into the action against Solomon Lane (Sean Ellis, last seen being dropped into a glass cube in the previous film). For reasons that are deliberately confusing to explain, Hunt inveigles his way into a terrorist organisation and win the contract to burst his nemesis out of jail. The heist scene, set in Paris, is brilliantly foreshadowed by a scene in which Hunt imagines the consequences of failure; unlike most blockbusters, Fallout sets the stakes, personal and political, at a high level, and all the action, including grandstanding foot, motorbike and helicopter chases, is more intense as a result. The spy-games keep you guessing until a lavish denouement set in the mountains, with rapid toggling between ratios reflecting the influence of Chris Nolan. Chris McQuarrie does a great job here, mixing intrigue, suspense and humour with the deftness of a classic Hollywood film.