Another batch of contenders have appeared to allegedly entertain us during these weird-ass times. Do The Rhythm Section, Onward, Dark Waters, Trolls World Tour, Extraction, and The Day Shall Come make the grade? Join us and find out.
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The Rhythm Section
As much as I have any awareness of movie production schedules these days I only became aware of The Rhythm Section when the trailer popped up on the IMDB app. Coming across somewhere between a European spy caper and a female-led Taken, my curiosity was immediately piqued at the notion of Blake Lively going from suburban family every-girl to ruthless assassin in search of vengeance for her family who have been killed in a trans-Atlantic plane bombing. Lively is one of those actors who I can imagine doing something really fantastic given the right opportunity, a notion I somehow managed to take away from 2016’s bonkers shark debacle The Shallows, and director Reed Morano was a complete enigma; a number of podcasts to which I subscribe were now talking about her with interest as a known quantity, but I’m ashamed to say she was absolutely absent from my radar.
As protagonist Stephanie Patrick, Lively starts the movie an unknown quantity, back story being served as a series of silent, lingering daydream vignettes of middle class family life where everyone alternates between jovial hugging and lingering smiles to camera. This is momentarily juxtaposed with Stephanie’s haggard current existence as a sex worker in a setting immediately interrupted by the arrival of a journalist who drops the bombshell regarding the fate of her family, something which up until now has been deemed a tragic accident. Disappointingly this is all the personal exposition we can expect, which is really unfortunate as it somewhat undermines Stephanie’s subsequent journey into her own personal heart of darkness.
There’s a lot to be said for economy of storytelling, but if your movie intends to pivot emotionally on my empathy toward an average Jo falling foul of exceptional circumstance I feel I’m entitled to get to know them at least a little before they transition to ruthless killer, lest I ultimately know them only as a ruthless killer. I expect empathy is being demanded of me by the sex worker setup, but with no time spent in understanding how harrowing that might be, or how far from her upbringing this leaves Stephanie, I can only judge it to be lazy writing and/or a cheap attempt at emotional blackmail, neither of which I appreciate.
When her journalist contact immediately ends up dead, Stephanie heads from London to the Scottish Highlands to meet with his inside man, disgraced former MI6 agent Iain Boyd; a performance by Judd Law that is not so much phoning it in as allowing the call to go to voicemail. For reasons known only to himself, rather than send Stephanie packing Iain affords her some opportunity to impress him through a Rocky-esque physical training regime (sadly not in montage), and is won over by her determination. Naturally, having demonstrated she can swim across a loch, Iain immediately progresses Stephanie to the stage of training known as “assume the identity of a presumably deceased female assassin and ingratiate yourself to professional agents of international espionage, travelling Europe mercilessly executing those involved in the plot to blow up your family’s plane without anyone cottoning on to the fact that you are spectacularly out of your depth.”
Thank goodness for Sterling K Brown who pops up as former CIA agent Mark Serra, with whom Stephanie builds a professional and ultimately physical relationship, because he at least manages to infuse his own woefully under-written character with an aura of shadiness and duplicity that is absolutely absent from the script. Without his presence I might actually have gone off to load the dishwasher and conduct other such low-level household chores, rather than keep forcing my eyelids open in service of Stephanie’s quest.
Despite all the talk of Morano’s skill in evidence throughout her previous directorial work, including The Handmaid’s Tale and other high profile TV projects, I find myself unable to build much anticipation for whatever her next cinematic outing might be, which is a shame as I have a shocking lack of knowledge when it comes to female directors and I would desperately like to rectify that. What initially piqued my interest in Morano was her background as a cinematographer, a role that she has previously doubled up on in other directorial projects. Here, however, that duty falls to Sean Bobbitt, another name I drew a blank on until I read his CV and realised he’s done some very high profile stuff. Unfortunately I don’t think this is going to be high up on that list beside the likes of 12 Years A Slave, as somehow the visual aesthetic of varied European cities and the Scottish Highlands, one of the most contrastingly stark and appealing landscapes in the world (hey, we’re biased), somehow come across as mostly muddied and indistinct. A little digging into shooting locations perhaps highlights why; the Scottish landscapes and London street scenes appear to have been shot in Ireland (no disrespect, Ireland), with everywhere else in Europe covered by Madrid. Still, it feels like the film could, with a little more effort and input, been made more visually dynamic.
In case you hadn’t gathered I don’t think there’s much to enjoy here, a fact borne out by the complete lack of any desire on my part to structure this review in much of a coherent way. Perhaps worst of all for a film so bereft of detail, having given The Rhythm Section the time of day despite myself, the ending left me confused and I don’t know if that’s because it was poorly written or I momentarily lost concentration at a key moment. Either way it’s not really my fault, and I certainly didn’t feel compelled to skip back and recap what I might have missed. Avoid.
Pixar’s latest is set more or less in a cuddly animal version of a Dungeons and Dragons scenario, minus the humans. Except, well, they’ve figured out magic is a bit of a pain in the ass, and that wizards are subtle and quick to anger. So when some elven Edison invents electricity and sets their world on the path to industrialisation, magic begins to fade from the world.
Later, in what’s now basically America with centaurs, Tom Holland’s Ian Lightfoot turns sixteen but still mourns for the passing of the father he never knew. So does his elder brother, Chris Pratt’s Barley although he seems to be burying it in an obsession with a fantasy game legally entirely separate from any intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast LLC, please direct any enquiries to Disney’s vast legal edifice.
As a last gift from their father, their mother, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Laurel, gives the brothers a magical staff, a rare gem, and a letter describing their father’s “visitation spell” that can resurrect him for a single day. Barley can’t cast it, but unexpectedly Ian accidentally kinda half does. The bottom half, to be exact, to all appearances resurrecting his dad’s trousers.
Clearly they need to try again to complete the spell, but the process destroyed the gem. So, a call to action then, as Ian and Barley take off in Barley’s dilapidated van to find a replacement, followed close after by their mother and her new partner, Mel Rodriguez’s Colt Bronco, who, naturally has a strained relationship with the two kids.
I wonder if there will be any closure of that, and any other emotional conflicts in the family that will occur as they undertake this unexpectedly dangerous and stressful quest, preferably around the 80 minute mark so we can get the perfunctory action finale out of the way and wrap this up with a feelgood denouement and get home in time for tea OH WAIT WE’RE ALWAYS AT HOME WE CAN NEVER LEAVE THE HOME NOW. I’m coping well.
Onward is fine. Well, it’s better than fine. I quite enjoyed my time with it. I recommend it. It’s a very solid film. It’s maybe the best film we’ll talk about today. It’s just a little disappointing that I can’t be more excited about it. I always hope for another Coco (which had a much better take on the underlying theme), but this is more mid-league Pixar. Which is still many leaps and bounds ahead of other animation studios game, and perhaps unfair.
After all, there’s not a single thing I can think of in here that I thought was actively bad, with dependable performance and pleasant graphics. Perhaps a bit more world building wouldn’t have gone astray, and although it’s hanging a large lampshade on it, the “let’s go on a quest” plot line is still somewhat pedestrian. But none of that is too much of a detraction, and I’d certainly rather see a sequel to this than Bright, so, y’know, take the smooth with the rough. I can’t whip up a lot of enthusiasm, perhaps, but I certainly still recommend Onward to all.
Mark Ruffalo’s Rob Bilott is a successful corporate lawyer for a big Cincinnati firm, and has just become a partner. Things are looking up for him and his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and likely would have carried on like 100,00 other lawyers if it wasn’t for the entry into his life of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Bilott’s grandmother’s town of Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant dumps a load of videotapes on Rob, and says a bunch, too, but I had to reply on the subtitles, in another language, to know what the farmer’s issue is, because I couldn’t understand a bloody word Camp said, though I appreciate the passion with which the actor said it. Or failed to. In short, nearly 200 of his cattle have died or been killed due to health issues and deformities, and he’s rightly miffed.
Tennant lays the blame at the feet of the giant chemical company DuPont, whose Teflon-producing factory is nearby. At first dismissive, Bilott begins to look into the story and finds evidence of a massive cover-up by one of the world’s largest chemical companies that has affected the health of the occupants of an entire town. He’s given the go-ahead by his superior, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), and begins to sue DuPont and demand their paperwork, resulting in the not-at-all childish response of delivering a veritable mountain of files to his office, dating back to at least the 1950s. The case will consume him for the next twenty years, but he’ll be determined to see justice done.
I’ve only seen three Todd Haynes-directed films before now – Far From Heaven, I’m Not There and Carol – and all of those were… let’s say… not brilliant? Or bad. Which is what I mean. And one of them had the enemy in it. Had I noted the director’s previous work before watching this I might have tempered my expectations somewhat, and been less disappointed. Not that Dark Waters is a bad film – it’s leaps and bounds ahead of those other three – but I’m left feeling quite underwhelmed. The trailer gives the impression of this being something like Erin Brockovich with a bit of The Insider or The Rainmaker, and I’m a sucker for that sort of film (The Rainmaker’s not brilliant but it’s probably the best thing Francis Ford Coppola has done in the last 35 years, and, at the risk of alienating Craig, I continue to enjoy Erin Brockovich and think that his enemy is well cast as the nippy sweetie that is the main character). But it’s not that, though perhaps is more realistic in some regards.
The trailer goes out of its way (and I wish the creators of trailers would cut this misleading shit out, it’s ultimately counterproductive) to suggest that Bilott is fighting against interested parties within his own law firm, and that his task is hindered more by malice and corruption than by public ignorance, an overwhelming amount of data, an imperfect and unwieldy legal system and a mind-bendingly messed-up regulatory framework. There is some of that nasty stuff, to be sure, but contrary to the trailer, Tim Robbins’ character actively supports Bilott’s case, even going so far as to shut down arguments that the firm could lose corporate business by pointing out that this is why Americans hate lawyers.
I appreciate this, based as it is on a true story, and while it may lose dramatic excitement due to the lack of up close and personal villainy, it can still make for compelling viewing, but Dark Waters is merely alright. The best thing about the film is clearly Mark Ruffalo, perfect as the round-shouldered, slightly shabby, regular guy lawyer (Ruffalo has been linked with the role of Columbo for years, and it would be perfect casting), but Bill Camp and Tim Robbins’s aside, there aren’t really many memorable characters.
Craig will be grateful that Bill Pullman isn’t in it long enough to make much impression, but no-one else really does so, either. I have no idea why Anne Hathaway’s in this at all as she has sod all to do, except be in the scene where she complains that Rob’s obsessed with this case and has given up on his family, which is presumably there because these sorts of films demand such scenes, rather than due to any good reason like it had ever been established before that point, or had any impact on the action going forward.
The structure is problematic, too, with large jumps forward in time accompanied with title cards that feel like they want to be considered meaningful and important, rather than what their messages of “Four Years Later” etc. actually convey, which is, “I guess it’s been a while, then”, and odd bits where Ruffalo explains the basic problem and crimes to three different people at once in an oddly-edited sequence, for the audience’s benefit. This seems especially egregious when even the least-attentive viewer would have had little trouble with, “You know all those dead cows and people and cancer and such? Well, DuPont made this nasty chemical, dumped it in the water supply and pretended it didn’t exist. Gits.”
And at one point, Bilott has an epiphany after looking at the cover of a children’s book called “Funny Teeth”, and there is the momentary journey into the point of view of a deranged cow. This material deserves better (DuPont really is the devil), and while the muted, sickly colour palette is fitting, I don’t know quite why Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman worked so hard to make this film feel like it was set in the 70s when Bilott’s story begins in 1997.
Not unenjoyable but ultimately lacking.
Trolls World Tour
What is there to know about Trolls World Tour, the inevitable sequel to 2016’s kiddie-pleasing acid trip of an animation? Doubling down on the latter’s Day-Glo, amphetamine-fuelled surrealist bunkum, World Tour posits a world compartmentalised by musical genre, and sees Poppy and Branch on a quest to save Trolls of all musical dispositions from the world-conquering ambition of the Hard Rock clan lead by the selfish Queen Barb and her father Thrash. Seeking to unite Classical, Country, Funk, Pop, Techno and Rock in an effort to stave off homogenisation, our heroes must protect the sacred musical strings of each kingdom and ultimately deliver our children a message that it’s cool to experiment and do your own thing, even if we’ve already established that music comes in only six distinct flavours.
At least I think that’s the plot; despite having seen this three times now I can’t honestly testify given that every time I’ve drifted off on the sofa next to the kids I’ve opened my eyes to be punched violently in the corneas by a massive, glittery fist soaked in LSD, while my ears are assaulted by characters speaking entirely in auto-tune and singing funked-up medleys in the spaces in-between.
And here’s the thing; I think I like it. Critically I believe a great deal of scorn has been directed toward this and the original movie, which I attribute to critics having essentially no souls and being so world-weary that they’ve scrubbed all memory of childhood from their addled minds. Having said that let’s not pretend that I’d have had any interest in either movie were it not for my two young children, but while I cannot turn back the clock I can at least make the most of my
situation and open my mind to the possibility of entertainment beyond the realm of the classical senses, which trolls World Tour surely is.
Much like the first movie World Tour is equal parts fun, funny, funky and relentlessly upbeat, a function of human existence I feel we are currently sorely undervaluing, and I strongly suspect that the people responsible for its conception would be genuinely heedless of critical reception even without the phenomenal returns they have made in light of its immediate digital distribution. I get the sense that everyone involved in the Trolls gravy train is genuinely invested in its target audience having a good time and hopefully picking up on some common sense tips for humanity along the way. I personally find it hard to argue, and while I cannot currently go out and purchase mind-altering pharmaceuticals I will happily, inevitably sit down on the couch at some point again soon to be rudely awakened by that pink, glittery fist.
In this Chris Hemsworth vehicle, the son of an Indian drug lord is kidnapped by a rival Bangladeshi drug lord. A small team of specialists is hired to get him back, rather than pay any ransom, headed by Hemsworth’s Tyler Rake. While he’s able to take the kid from his captors, there’s some double crossing afoot, forcing Rake to bust out of Dhaka solo through the medium of murdering several hundred police officers.
I mean, there’s a little more to it than that, but not much more, and certainly nothing that isn’t out of Baby’s First Book of Cliches and Genre Tropes. For example, so confident is Joe Russo’s script of being utterly generic that Rake’s obligatory troubled backstory is only vaguely hinted at through blurry flashbacks and dreams, with you left to fill the details in yourself.
I made a note of the point at which I realised that I did not care one jot about anything on the screen, that being 28 minutes in. While there’s perhaps some humanity early on in the film, when we briefly get to know Rudhraksh Jaiswal’s Ovi Mahajan Jr, the kidnapped kid, after he’s taken he may as well be replaced by a rucksack that’s flung pillar to post by Rake. Rake is, almost by design, so overwhelmingly default that interest will refuse to adhere to him, and, well who cares about the tribulations of drug dealers?
I had a slight glimmer of hope later on when David Harbour shows up, as Hemsworth’s shown plenty of charisma in previous roles that I would have thought there’s potential for these two to play off each other, but, sadly, no, these scenes are just as predictable as everything else in the movie.
The car chases and shootouts that compose a solid 80% of the film are, to be fair, pretty well handled on a technical level, but as stated multiple times by this point, they are happening to people that I give not a solitary fig about, and so they all fall rather flat. Not least because of the number of surely innocent policemen that Rake mercilessly slaughters – we’re not suppose to feel sorry for them because the chief of police is in the drug lord’s pocket, but it’s quite a stretch to assume that everyone under him is also on board the evil train. Like everything else in the film, we are expected not to think about it too much.
This has, at least according to Netflix been a huge success, by whatever metric they measure success. This must surely be a commentary on the boredom imposed by lockdowns rather than any sort of vote of approval for this characterless, bland, sub-Call of Duty cutscene of film that I simply cannot imagine anyone caring about in the slightest. Netflix’s search for a competent action series much continue. 6 Underground at least had a bit of personality – this film, and in particular in the very last scene of this film, can go get bent so hard that it forms a pretzel.
The Day Shall Come
Biting satire, humour and a large helping of absurdity? Sounds like my sort of thing, and it also sounds like a Chris Morris sort of thing, which is precisely what The Day Shall Come is.
Marchánt Davis’ Moses Al-Shabazz is the leader of a small religious commune in Miami, “The Star of Six”, whose aim is the improvement of the lives of black people and the non-violent (toy crossbows aside) overthrow of the accidental dominance of the white race. Moses founded the community after God talked to him through a duck, though to be scrupulously exact, it was a duck through which Satan normally talked and God managed to sneak through one day when Satan wasn’t looking.
This fact is one of several early clues that Moses is not well. He’s a kind, well-meaning and mostly harmless young man, who fortunately is plagued by angels more than demons, but who would clearly be far better off back on his medication. But when his family and followers are threatened with eviction from their farm, Moses is tempted to take up the offer proposed by local shopkeeper and kiddy-fiddler, Reza (Kayvan Novak), and meet with his Al-Qaeda contact, Nura, to fund an insurrection.
Reza is, in fact, an FBI asset, as is Nura, and they are working under the direction of ambitious FBI agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), who is trying to set up “The Star of Six” in order to make her name and garner a much-desired arrest and terrorism conviction. The fact that Moses is not a terrorist, and that he plans to turn the AK-47s he has been offered into fence posts, is considered an unimportant detail.
Things become more serious when Moses’ landlord demands radioactive material for some connections of his, and the members of the commune are now involved in an increasingly more farcical situation, which culminates in a declaration of a nuclear emergency that isn’t actually a nuclear emergency, but that can only be called off by the people who know that it isn’t a real nuclear emergency first declaring it a nuclear emergency, because you can’t call off something that doesn’t exist without first declaring that it exists. It’d be madness otherwise, right?
By the film’s finale Agent Glack’s conscience has decided to show up, and she tries her best to mend things, but it’s too late and too many people and mechanisms are involved. The Day Shall Come’s continuous undercurrent of pathos provides the foundation for a ending that is a real gut punch, most particularly because it comes from the knowledge that, over-the-top as much of the film can seem, it is based on numerous true stories of FBI provocation and entrapment, most notably that of the Liberty City Seven, a massive FBI “success” in which the bureau prevented an attack on Chicago by a group from Florida.
Less well-publicised was the fact that the plan of this group of Haitian Catholics involved riding into Chicago on horses and creating a tidal wave. The film’s opening message of “based on a hundred true stories” gives you a clear idea that that was not an outlier.
The Day Shall Come isn’t as funny or as effective as Four Lions, but it’s still very humorous, with a script, from Morris and Veep and In the Loop writer Jesse Armstrong, full of killer lines and wordplay, and full of the director’s seething, righteous indignation.
The cast are all pretty great, with Kayvan Novak being excellent value as usual, though it’s perhaps Kendrick, the film’s biggest star by a margin, who feels out of place, never seeming 100% comfortable in her role. However, she is playing a character trying to prove herself in a male-dominated world and I could be persuaded that it is the role, not the performance, that causes the slight awkwardness. The standout, though, is Marchánt Davis, in his first film, who I don’t think could be bettered in his performance of Moses, and who plays it perfectly earnestly even while sitting atop a conference room table wearing a tricorn hat and a shower curtain. I very much look forward to seeing more of him.
In the name of Allah, Jesus, Melchizedek, Black Santa, Muhammad and General Toussaint. Bishops!
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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