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.

Aquaman 2018 ****

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Not much about Aquaman suggested anything good; springing from an appearance with the Justice League in a truly awful film that didn’t inspire confidence. But director James Wan seems to have swagger to burn, and builds a spectacularly goofy and enjoyable romp around the happiest of centres in Jason Momoa. As Arthur Curry, he serves up an endearing performance that feels honest and camp at the same time, right from an outrageous ‘Permission to come onboard!’ introduction that, to coin a phrase used elsewhere, the gayest man on earth might think was over-the-top. A game Nicole Kidman shows just the right kind of style for this in a lengthy prologue about Aquaman’s origins, and the various adventures seem far from the conventional Marvel template. The visuals look like a Meatloaf album cover brought to life, and perennial MVP Willem Dafoe does his usual inimitable job as Aquaman’s mentor. Throw in Dolph Lundgren for giggles and your brainless Saturday night is set; this is a very silly film, but it restores the genre to it’s 1930’s Saturday-morning serial heyday with brisk storytelling and shafts of wit.

Destroyer 2018 ***

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Karyn Kusama’s tough crime flick was hailed as an awards –front runner by dint of Nicole Kidman’s dramatic change of appearance for the title role of Erin Bell, an LA cop who goes deep undercover in an attempt to bust a bank-robbing gang. Awards-voters aren’t known for their appreciation of noir, and Destroyer fell by the wayside in terms of attention and box-office. Kidman, seen enjoying good health in the flashback scenes, looks haggard and exhausted in the modern-day storyline of Destroyer as she shakes-down various low-lives to get to the source of some dyed-bank notes which connect her to a disastrous heist. Toby Kebbell makes an impression as the gang’s leader Silas, and the big action scene has a real punch. The script isn’t always convincing, and the plot-holes work do against Destroyer, but as a terse thriller in the vein of Michael Mann, Destroyer has a lot to offer the discerning noir fan.

 

The Railway Man 2013 ***

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The true and extraordinary story of Eric Lomax, a Scot who survived World War Two at the sharp end of a Japanese POW camp, should make for a compelling film; Jonathan Teplitzky’s drama falls short of the mark. The problem is largely structural; an eighties set plotlines finds Lomax (Colin Firth) wrestling with extreme PTSD despite the loving care of his wife (Nicole Kidman). This should probably only have accounted for a fifth of the film, but due to the heavyweight cast, takes up half the picture. The flashback scenes, with Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax, are far more compelling, and get directly to grips with the subject of Lomax’s book. The final message about war and forgiveness still packs an emotional punch, but it’s not because of the tortuous storytelling featured in The Railway Man, but the extraordinary actions of Lomax himself.

Dogville 2003 ***

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Writer/director Lars von Trier created a vivid theatrical experience in this 2003 drama, with Nicole Kidman as Grace, a woman who stumbled unannounced into the Rocky Mountain’ township of Dogville. Rather than use (or simulate) real locations, von Trier sets the action on a stage set, adding a layer to theatricality that’s initially distracting, but strong performances from Kidman and a cast including Paul Bettany, James Caan, Lauren Bacall quickly establish the feel of the small Colorado town. Dogville’s hefty 174 minutes take their time in establishing how Grace relates to the community, but there’s a devastating twist at the end that elevates this claustrophobic chamber piece into the realms of high art.

Stoker 2013 ***

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Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska comes of age in this creepy Hitchcockian thriller, the English Language debut of Old Boy director  Chan-wook Park Wasikowska plays India Stoker, mourning her dead father (Dermot Mulroney), struggling to connect with her mother (Nicole Kidman) and threatened and yet charmed by her sinister uncle (Matthew Goode) . From a tight script by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, Stoker is a brooding Gothic melodrama that slowly ratchets up the tension, and managed to dodge the genre clichés before reaching a surprising and yet clearly signposted denouement.