​​American Assassin – a review/rant

I didn’t walk out, so there is that. I really wanted to. Sixty minutes in and the cliches and lazy plot twist just kept coming. It is films like this – films that get major distribution and promotion – then turn out to be so poorly executed, that anger me. American Assassin, a made for television film if ever there was one, has been foisted on an unsuspecting public as a high-concept action thriller. It really is not.
The film begins in Ibiza where a loved-up Mitch Rapp (an underfed Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend, Katrina – though I thought her name was Serena – (Charlotte Vega). She accepts and he goes off to get a couple of cocktails to celebrate. As he waits at the bar all hell breaks loose as terrorist open fire, spraying automatic gunfire at fleeing holidaymakers. Rapp takes a shot in the hip and shoulder as he tries to find his recently acquired fiancée. As Katrina looks for him, she gets shot and then one of the terrorists decides to shoot her again in front of Rapp, because, why not?
Fast forward eighteen months and a hirsute Rapp is making contact with the Taliban, hoping to infiltrate the cell that killed his fiancée. Unbeknownst to him, he is being observed by the CIA who move in when his plan proves successful, getting them close to a target they had previously been unable to even locate.
Impressed by his tenacity and apparent high level of combat and firearms competency – “he scores off the charts” says deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Latham). Bullshit. – he is recruited to join a covert, hardcore, elite division run by grizzled veteran hard arse, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). And the cliches keep on coming.
The angry young buck that is Rapp, proves to be a bit of a maverick, failing to follow orders and going off mission. Meanwhile – cliche pile-ups aplenty – Hurley recognizes one of his old charges, referred to enigmatically (not really) as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). Turns out Ghost was a former operative, whom they thought dead, who was the previous young charge who ‘scored off of the charts’!
Having revealed the laziest twist in cinema, the film proceeds with some convoluted crap about uranium and building a nuke and how it must not get into Iranian hands, but wait, the Ghost is double-crossing everybody! He wants to blow up ‘Mericans!
The fact that this same story has been done so much better – 2012’s Skyfall most recently – on every level is what is irritating. One does not expect a masterpiece – not with the imaginative title of American Assassin – but lazy, tired, two-dimensional characters, a less than two-hour runtime that feels like four and lackluster directing do not point to a film that warrants the kind of promotion that this tripe had.
It always pains me when I see actors having to commit and try and convince an audience that a story is worth sticking with, whilst working with such poor material. Four – FOUR! – screenwriters worked on this! It is doubtful that they worked together, as the script reeks of studio interference, hence the many writing credits. There is only one director though, Michael Cuesta.
Cuesta is mostly credited with television work. The best I can say about the directing in this film is everyone is in focus. Fights scenes – in an action thriller remember – are pedestrian. For some reason, they decided to set a chase scene in one of the world’s busiest cities, when it comes to traffic, Rome and the chase is on par with the awful ‘let people see the cars’ sequence/chase in Spectre in its blandness.
Locations, no doubt trying to give the film an international flavour, seemed picked at random, as though the director thought they might be nice places to visit. Another thing; the title of the film gives the impression of some lone wolf, a one-man army, tasked with taking out bad people; a male Nikita if you will. In the film he is anything but that, stealing cars and having shootouts whilst compromising his team and mission, no finesse or evidence of his ‘off the charts’ ability in anything except reckless endangerment.
If you have one hundred plus minutes to kill and find yourself watching the trailers as you wait for American Assassin to begin, do yourself a favour and leave after the trailers.

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The Lesbian Majority In The Minority

An odd and mild prejudice has been revealed to me whilst binge watching my latest obsession – I’m late to the party but I am loving Wynonna Earp! – I have found that with perhaps the exception of Curtis in Arrow, there are no male gay characters that I find particularly engaging on television. Even with Curtis, it is the character of Curtis, not his relationship, that I like. When it comes to gay female characters my feelings are completely different.
From Willow and Tara on the best show of all time, Buffy The Vampire Slayer – shut up, it is! – to my present favourite show, Wynonna Earp, – hashtag Wayhaught – television’s representation of lesbianism has always been more, emotionally, appealing that that of the homosexual bent.
At this point, I should probably confess my inappropriate and undeniable love of a character and actress who is almost half my age in Dominique Provost-Chalkley (if she gets married and keeps her name, that will be a real mouthful!) and her character, the feisty Waverley. Along with Katherine Barrell’s dark eyed police officer, Nicole Haught, they make up one of the most engaging and wonderfully organic gay couples on television, the aforementioned Wayhaught.
It is a testament to the writing, casting, and performances that the relationship works so well in the show. From the moment officer Haught comes into the show, the attraction to Waverley is immediate and obvious. Not that it should be a massive surprise as the creator and show runner, Emily Andras, was also involved in the sexually fluid and brilliant Lost Girl.
It does beg the question as to why female gay relationships seem to be explored so much better in terms of emotion than their male equivalent, especially as – though this may just be a result of my city myopia – there seem to be far more gay men than gay women. Not that I seek out programmes with gay relationships in them and perhaps as such I have just not seen the shows that reflect the emotional depth that shows I have watched with gay relations – Buffy, Lost Girl, Supergirl, Wynonna Earp – convey.
Even the shows that have embraced male on male relationships, such as Empire, created by the openly gay Lee Daniels, tend to approach male relationships differently, with, in the case of Empire, the gay Jamal character portrayed by Jussie Smollett, very strong and prominent in the show but any partner or hook up he meets being only there to support his character, lacking any true purpose themselves.
Even though Tara and Willow were in Buffy and Waverly and Nicole have irresistible chemistry, it is the portrayal of Alex and Maggie in Supergirl that is my favourite couple. The openly gay Maggie (Floriana Lima) challenges Alex (Chyler Leigh) view of herself, when after years of failed heterosexual relationships, she finds herself, to her surprise, attracted to the streetwise, tough talking, Maggie. Both tackle elements in the relationship that they have always shied away from, both are similar in that they have erected a wall around themselves, projecting a certain persona, in order to protect their hearts.
Amidst the silly and enjoyable superhero stuff, they more than any other characters, explore the complexities and challenges that are part and parcel of any relationship.
In the landscape of television, much more so than film, there is so much scope for the stories and realities of any and every group to be told and heard. The stories of women, gay men and women and those in the transgender community are being heard and sought more frequently now. For myself, as a British black person, there are still so many stories that are not being told and even in these increasingly multicultural and multiethnic times, few stories that reflect the plight or even normality of the fish-out-of-water scenario that is everyday life for so many non-white or indigenous people in the big city.
Whether this is a reflection of the powers that produce and make programmes or a reflection of the viewing demographic is hard to say, but with so much media and so many platforms to get our stories out there, I am confident that it will and can only get better.

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I Am The Immortal Iron Fist! (we know!)

Having just finished binge-watching both Netflix’s shows, Iron Fist and The Defenders and, for the most part, enjoying them, here are my belated thoughts on the latest additions to the MCU – Marvel Cinematic universe – televisual rostrum. This blog will focus on Iron Fist.
In order of preference, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were great shows, setting up and defining the lead and central characters perfectly. Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer whose sense of duty and justice is fuelled by rage and a fearless need to defend his city, New York, as the Daredevil. Jessica Jones, a reluctant superhero, imbued with superhuman strength and a sense of right that she fights to suppress, feeling her involvement in any situation immediately makes it worse and Luke Cage, bulletproof and super strong, he only wants to keep his neighbourhood safe, feeling that, with his particular gifts, he is duty bound to do so.
All the aforementioned shows created compelling and believable central protagonist, their foibles and struggle relatable and recognisable. In Iron Fist, the fourth and final character to be introduced before all the characters being brought together, the previous formula is, inexplicably, ignored.
Danny Rand, who is – as he tells us repeatedly as though he suffers from some form of braggadocio Tourette’s – the immortal Iron Fist, is a man who returns from obscurity, having been presumed dead, to claim his billion dollar fortune and occasionally fight bad people – not particularly impressively for a person who had trained everyday since childhood to be a warrior, but I will get to that.
Iron Fist suffers from a few problems, one being the comparison with its better predecessors, second being miscasting and perhaps the biggest issue is the writing. That is not to say the writing is bad. It is great for just about every character except for the oft-mentioned immortal Iron Fist. In a thirteen episode series – thirteen hours of my life! – the only character who does not evolve is Danny ‘I am the immortal Iron Fist’ Rand.
Rand’s purpose is also muddled. Having returned to New York to….truthfully I not sure what his reasons were for returning to New York. Fifteen years have passed since he disappeared, presumed dead, he returns to his father’s former company building, looking like a hobo and is mystified as to why nobody will accept that he is Danny Rand, somehow still the rightful owner of fifty-one percent of the multi-billion-dollar Rand corporation, even though all the world thought him dead.
A superhero, martial arts series, which is the loose concept of Iron Fist, turns into a tedious corporate power struggle show. Did I say martial arts? Right. Aside from saddling Finn Jones, the actor who plays Danny Rand, with the Herculean task of making Rand relatable, he also is supposed to be a fierce martial arts warrior – the immortal Iron Fist. Unfortunately, everybody he fights seems to be a more competent martial artist than he is. In both shows! In The Defenders, Daredevil exhibits a level of fighting prowess that the immortal Iron Fist could only dream of matching.
The wide shots favoured in the better fight films of modern times do Jones no favours, though he does noticeably improve between Iron Fist and The Defenders, but not enough for him to convince as a character of true formidable fighting skill. Perhaps that was the reason Iron Fist was so much exposition as opposed to action, with the little action there is involving the immortal Iron Fist lacklustre. That is not to say all is lost action wise. It would seem, as is the way of television, that Danny needed a love interest – not to mention something to save the show from martial arts mediocrity – to that end the character of Colleen Wing, played by a fantastic Jessica Henwick, lifts proceedings every time she is in a scene. Her fight scenes are also some of the best in the series.
It is a pity that the fight scenes for the central character are so underwhelming, as the aesthetics of the rest of the show are quite impressive, likewise the performances from just about every other actor. Even the pacing is quite good, even if there were times when I wished someone, anyone, would fight.
In conclusion, Iron Fist is passable entertainment without ever reaching or even threatening to reach the heights of previous MCU fare. What is more unfortunate is the fact that Iron Fist is the launch pad for The Defenders, thus thrusting the perennially dull Rand, ‘I am the immortal Iron Fist’ quote in tow, front and centre of a series with far richer characters.

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard – a review

The Hitman’s Bodyguard stars Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds in a pretty formulaic buddy-buddy action movie. At just under two hours long – a tad on the lengthy side – it is, nonetheless, an enjoyable waste of a couple of hours.
Reynolds is Michael Bryce, a bodyguard who is at the top of his profession. He has a beautiful girlfriend, Amelia Roussel – an underused and underwritten Elodie Yung, better known for her turn as Elektra in the Netflix Daredevil series – who is also an Interpol agent. Michael’s business is ruined when a high profile client is killed moments before he successfully completes the protection detail.
Two years later Michael, his reputation in tatters and his relationship over, is doing smaller lower profile jobs – a cameo from Richard E. Grant as a nervous, pill popping lawyer, is suitably amusing as Reynolds’ Michael tries to maintain the previously high standard of service that saw him rise to the top of his profession, even as his demeanour betrays the fact that he could not care less about the job.
Elsewhere, back in the past, we see the President/Dictator of Belarus, Vladislav Dukhovich – Gary Oldman covering the bills with one of his stock-in-trade villain performances – killing some poor teacher’s wife and child, because he had the temerity to speak out against the oppressive regime. Back in the present, the same teacher is in the Hauge, giving evidence against Dukhovich as he is tried as a war criminal.
The evidence, unfortunately, is not sufficient as there is no physical proof. Samuel L. Jackson is Darius Kincaid, a clinical Assassin whom Interpol have in their possession. He has the necessary evidence needed to put Dukhovich away, but will only testify if his wife – an extremely fiery and foul-mouthed Salma Hayek – is released and cleared of all charges.
With a deal in place, rookie field agent Roussel is tasked with escorting Kincaid to the Hauge trial. When the security motorcade is ambushed by Dukhovich’s men, Roussel realises that Interpol has been compromised and reluctantly calls her ex-boyfriend, Bryce.

Initially, Bryce refuses to help, but when Roussel tells him she can get his life back on track, he agrees to help. He has reservations once more when he finds out it is Kincaid, a man who has tried to kill him multiple times.
As mentioned above, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an enjoyable film that springs absolutely no surprises whatsoever. Jackson is on cranked-up-to-eleven, full muthafucka spitting form, playing a hitman who happens to have a supreme talent for killing, a talent that has got him handsomely paid, whilst embracing all of life’s riches, good and bad. Reynolds’ good guy caught in a bad situation face is in full effect also.
When the two leads are together on screen the film sparkles, with them playing perfectly off of one another. Every other aspect of the film is as one would expect. There is gun play, fighting, a villainous master plan, a villainous rant, really weak female characters – even though there are quite a few prominent female roles – and chase scenes. An action comedy by numbers.
As I alluded to earlier, the film is on the long side at just under two hours. There are several chase scenes that would have been better served by a more ruthless editor, especially one Bond-esque waterway scene. There was also a surprising amount of CGI, with a lot of the leads scenes noticeably studio shot.
Having recently been spoilt by the glorious cinematography and colour in Dunkirk and Atomic Blonde, the visuals of The Hitman’s Bodyguard were comparatively lacklustre, even looking fuzzy at times.
Minor film geekery aside, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an entertaining romp, with enough pace to not flag too much and the stars doing what the best ones do, raising a mediocre film to a good one.

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Atomic Meh – a review

Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and featuring James McAvoy, Toby Jones and John Goodman is the directorial effort – a full debut if you will allow – of David Leitch. Leitch, an actor, stuntman, writer and producer, came to prominence as one of the co-directors on the brilliant Keanu Reeves starrer, John Wick. With its simple premise and brisk execution, John Wick was one of the best action films to come out in the last few years.
One of the reasons for its success was given as the expertise of its two directors in stunt work and action set piece coordination. This expertise is evident in Atomic Blonde. Every fight scene, almost as impressive as John Wick, is fluid and kinetic, the sound design implemented perfectly for every punch, kick, knee and bullet. There is one fight sequence towards the end of the film that is so gratifyingly violent it is almost worth the admission price on its own.
The statuesque Theron is perfectly cast as Lorraine Broughton – not the greatest spy name – an MI6 operative sent into cold war Germany, in nineteen eighty-nine, to retrieve a list that contains a list of all the undercover operatives in Europe. The situation is complicated by fractious East/West relations as the Berlin wall is seen as the symbol of oppression that it was and some other nonsense wherein the operative who had the list was an old flame of Lorraine. Lorraine is told her contact in Berlin is David Percival (McAvoy) an agent who has been undercover for some time in Berlin.
Cards on the table, I must admit I did not love this film. It was by no means terrible or even bad. It was just okay. The biggest problem is the convoluted story. The ‘missing list’ story has been done so many times it is becoming its own sub-genre! It was done fantastically in Skyfall and to great comedic effect in Spy. In Atomic Blonde, the list is seen as so vital that every covert agency and nefarious group in the world wants it. I, however, didn’t care.
A spy ‘thriller’, punctuated with some great action scenes, Atomic Blonde is unnecessarily complex in the story with one never sure if any character is who they purport to be. It also utilises a, in my opinion, detrimental style in the telling of the story, with a beat up looking Lorraine recalling the events in a debriefing meeting, post mission. The story is shown in flashback, interspersed with tension free moments of her being questioned in the present.
As far as I can see, the title of the film only serves as reference to Theron’s stylistic nod to eighties Debbie Harry and – a little misguidedly – her explosive fighting style. I say it’s misguided because – and I cannot emphasise this enough – it is not an action film. There is too much Tinker, Tailor and not enough Die Hard for it to be a true action film, which is a pity because, as I alluded to earlier, the fight scenes are truly spectacular.
With the talent on show the acting is, of course, top class. McAvoy as the caddish Percival is probably the standout alongside Theron’s Lorraine, though I feel Sofia Boutella as the callow French spy Delphine Lasalle is very good, she is not served by an underwritten character. The story also suffers from – especially in the first hour – pedestrian pacing, the constant back and forth really slowing things down.
Roland Moller, who plays the chief antagonist, Aleksander Bremovych, is basically asked to deliver a clichéd villain’s performance, with his introduction, by – believe me this not much of a spoiler – killing a quivering youth with a skateboard, is so heavily signposted it fails to elicit any real impact. After his show of Alpha maleness, he is barely seen for the rest of the film.
Technically Atomic Blonde is very good. So uninspired by the story unfolding on the screen was I that I was able to appreciate the deliberate silver-whiteness of the colour palette, aiding the eighties feel of the film. Though I liked the sound design in general, I did not love the soundtrack. Having said that, Theron’s Lorraine using George Michael as a sound suppressant in one fight scene was inspired.
Atomic Blonde is not the worse way to spend two hours and I would even say the fight scenes are worth the admission price, but if you were hoping for an engaging story and action flick, Atomic Blonde misses the mark.

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Fairly Fearsome Future

I think this blog is going to be short. I made the mistake of missing out on doing a daily blog last weekend and find myself in the midst of the purgatory that is writer’s block. I have ideas for a few stories, feature length script ideas, I also have several projects that need rewrites and/or reworking, not to mention the distinct lack of blogs.
I have started writing scenes on cards. You would think with all the technology and programs around – Final Draft, Scrivner, Celtx – that working scenes out in a random, as-they-come fashion, would be easy. It isn’t. Something about clicking and dragging, as opposed to the shuffling about of 3 x 5 cards, is just less appealing and interrupts my creative process.
Meanwhile, other ideas are crashing in on my psyche, completely unrelated to any of the stuff I am trying to focus on. It is as if my brain is hardwired for procrastination, with the smallest thing taking my focus away from the task at hand. This blog is a case in point, I’ve been writing it for three days and I have managed less than two hundred words!
I think the thought of writing a feature length script is affecting me. There is no reason it should, as I have written longer pieces and shorter bits, but that one hundred to one hundred and twenty pages of a complete – no, I am not going to think of a trilogy! – story, beginning, middle and end, is strangely daunting. It is the building of a compelling story, with interesting characters, driven by an unavoidable goal, plus engaging the emotions that is the challenge. It is exactly what every film guru tells you, what every great film shows, what every screenwriter is trying to and believes they are doing when they embark on a screenplay.
So, it is obvious now, as I write this babbling blog, what the issue is. It’s fear and not the weird, but strangely real fear, of succeeding. Nope, this is proper, I could royally fuck this up fear. This is the fear where you write something and end up second guessing yourself, lacking the courage of your convictions. This is the kind of fear that makes one write derivative works, clichéd works, boring, safe work. The sort of stuff that no one, not even your nearest and dearest, can get through when you ask for their feedback.
Perhaps I am being a tad melodramatic. The fear of writing horribly is all too real though. No one starts writing and tackles rewrites with the thought of producing something sub par. In the mind, it is always a great idea. Then you put it on paper and start, hopefully, to see the flaws. If you’re fortunate, they are easily fixed, more structural than poorly thought out.
Sometimes one can become wedded to a bad idea, desperate to make it work. I myself have many an unfinished script or story where the excitement of an idea, when you think you have an original take on something, turns out to be a bit rubbish or not as compelling on the page as it was in my head. What is the alternative? Give up writing? No chance. Even as I wrestle with the notion of perhaps not becoming an Oscar, Emmy or Bafta award winning scribe, or not being good enough to make the slightest dent in the lowliest of film festivals, I know that I want to write.
The thought of not writing or making a film has not really occurred to me as a possibility or probability. Maybe, even with the advancing years and a lifetime of experience, I still retain that almost necessary naiveté, believing I can still make my way in the cruellest and unforgiving industry that is film and television. Only time – and a herculean effort – will tell.

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Dunkirk – War Kills: a film review

So, I did what I said I would do and went and watched Dunkirk, even though it is a war film and I am really not a fan of war films, but as it was a Christopher Nolan film, I made an exception. And I am glad that I did! My head is still hurting from the emotional impact of the piece. It is a film that has deservedly garnered five-star reviews.
With an incredibly sparse script, this is a story told how film should be, without all the clever exposition – though there is a tiny bit -, just a full on visual and aural assault. It is so evident in the storytelling that this is a subject that is close to Nolan’s heart. After a quiet, sedate opening, that last less than two minutes, the bombs, literally and aurally, start dropping.
Besides the sound, in an age where the ability to film in 4K or 1080p digital is available to anyone who can afford a high-end mobile phone or even just a good DSLR camera, Nolan, a real film lover, resolutely shoots on celluloid. With Dunkirk, he shot the film on 70mm celluloid and it looks spectacular for it. The colour depth is astounding, everything looking real without looking overly enhanced or saturated.
The wide shots of the beach have you staring as if you were actually on the beach, sand and soldiers as far as the eyes can see. Nolan’s obsession with water – Inception, Interstellar – continues in Dunkirk out of pure necessity. There is so much of the channel in this film, one could get seasickness. So many shots display the vastness and isolation that the young men feel as they wait and struggle and strive to escape the hell of the war and the impending arrival of the German forces.
Hans Zimmer is at the peak of his powers on the soundtrack, his powerful melodies carrying the emotion of war as much as the bombings and air raids. As much as the picture is captivating and the sound both deafening and enveloping, it is the way that the film makes you feel that is especially powerful.
Fear is a terrible and powerful thing and in the faces of the young soldiers, hoping and praying to get back to a home that, with a keen eye, can be seen on a clear day from the beaches, makes the fear tangible. Exposed on an open beach and piers, as they wait for transportation that may or may not be coming, the sound of an incoming enemy plane, laden with bombs, a horrible siren of death and they can do nothing but cower and pray that, though they are prepared to die for their fellow countrymen on the field of battle, the bomb does not drop on them and instead hits some other poor unfortunate soul.

At just over an hour and forty minutes long, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest films in some years. Not that the running time affects the storytelling. If anything, it enhances it, such is the tension when watching, it is hard to know if it would have been possible to maintain that tension over two hours.
As has been popular recently, there was an appearance by a famous face, one that is not known for acting. After Ed Sheeran turning up in the omnipresent Game Of Thrones and David Beckham lending his thespian talents to Guy Richie’s latest effort, King Arthur, neither of which I have seen – sorry, I don’t watch GOT and I’m too far behind to start now – both cameos getting a critical bashing, it was a risk for Nolan to cast a pop star whose magnitude matches Ed Sheeran’s. Not only did he cast Harry Styles, he of One Direction fame – I know the band, but please do not ask me to name one of their tracks! – he gave him a proper role, an acting role and he was good.
Looking the right age to play a young soldier, Styles blends in seamlessly with the surroundings, his stratospheric fame not affecting or impacting the performance. Nolan claimed to have no notion as to who Styles was before the shooting of the film. Perhaps this is true, but if Styles global fame can entice a new audience, a younger audience that probably would have no interest in Dunkirk and its place in history were it not for their idol, then the casting, accidental or not, will have been a stroke of genius. Just like the film.

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