They’re giving dirty rotten men a run for their money.
Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway), a classy con artist with an affinity for the high life, is making her way back home on the train to an affluent coastal region of Southern France when she encounters the rather sloppy and abrasive, but still effective con woman Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson). Unsettled by her brash nature and the fact that Penny could disrupt the ‘business’ on her turf, Josephine stealthily deploys her contact, Brigitte Desjardins (Ingrid Oliver), to successfully distract Penny with a group of men posing as marks.
To the shock of both Josephine and Brigitte, Penny soon arrives at the French Riviera anyway, having scammed a sympathetic rich man with the often-deployed story of her attractive sister’s expensive surgery needs. Realizing her opponent’s game, Josephine begins to teach Penny her ‘sugar baby ways’ after being threatened by her rival, who blackmails to destroy the prestigious lifestyle she’d built for herself.
Reluctantly, Josephine takes Penny under her wing, hoping she’ll vamoose once her training is done, but it soon becomes apparent that Penny (who begins experiencing all the finer things in life) isn’t going anywhere. And, thus, a winner-takes-all con is proposed: whoever successfully wrings $50k out of an introverted app developer named Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) gets to stay in town, while the other will be given the boot.
Teamwork makes the scheme work.
The creative talent shepherding all of this is an interesting pool, to say the least. We have screenwriter Jac Schaeffer, TiMER (2009), who’s set to become a big thing over the next few years, being embedded with Marvel Studios in the Black Widow spinoff and the TV series WandaVision. Her breakthrough project was the Disney animated short Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (2017), which played before some sessions of Coco (2017). If her work on that short is any indication, I’d say she’s probably better suited to fresh material, as it seems to free up her imagination and structure.
The Hustle flips the gender roles from director Frank ‘Yoda’ Oz’s hugely successful comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) in which Michael Caine played the sophisticated con man and Steve Martin the goofy eager learner. That film itself was a remake of another movie called Bedtime Story (1964), featuring David Niven as the wise teacher and of all people, Marlon Brando as the silly student. Scoundrels is one of my all-time favorite comedies, certainly ranking amongst the best that Steve Martin has starred in and Frank Oz has directed, with Bedtime Story no slouch either, having me in stitches with Brando’s unbridled silliness.
It’s not too surprising that this material could be re-imagined with a modern feminist spin, with female-fronted films becoming more and more prominent at the multiplexes. Normally my gut reaction to anyone taking on a fave of mine would be ‘concerned,’ but here, I could instantly see what could be done with such a fun basic premise. What’s been fascinating is how the marketing has pushed this idea that these two women are somewhat justified in their double-crossings, taking on men who apparently ‘had it coming.’
No one makes an entrance like Anne Hathaway.
There are two things that I take issue with, both in the resulting film’s initial portion. Firstly, it misses the point of the previous iterations, where the victims were innocent, guilty of little more than being charmed and naïve, with the con artists coming across to us, the audience, as amusingly despicable in their ways — unsurprisingly, they were the dirty rotten scoundrels. The second is that if the filmmakers wanted to get serious about the idea of awful rich dudes getting swindled, they should’ve really committed to making these people especially unlikeable and antagonistic. Think along the lines of a slasher movie, where over the run time, a character is built up as a complete jerk that’ll eventually get their gory comeuppance. By the time they cark it (hopefully in the most extreme way), audiences cheer and clap in celebration. Sure, some of the guys targeted in The Hustle might be horny, notably Josephine’s marks, but they otherwise don’t seem to be in such relentless, unwarranted pursuit that you feel they ought to be duped.
What the film could’ve used in this current climate, and could’ve been somewhat therapeutic for its audience, is something along the lines of a parody of the heavily decried Harvey Weinstein — a greasy, selfish Hollywood mogul who claimed what he wanted from women because he believed that he could get away with it (and unfortunately did for such a long period of time). A character like this would make the perfect target for this sort of story, a true ‘dirty rotten scoundrel’ who deserves a good rip off. What we actually get, though, is a narrative where the victims aren’t all that bad, and not as deserving as you’re led to believe. Yet we’re still expected to applaud the somewhat gallant work of our protagonists.
Where there’s a man, there’s a scam.
Directing Schaeffer’s script is Chris Addison, making his feature film debut, having cut his teeth on television work, largely as an actor. Arguably his most famous role is as the awkward Junior Advisor Oliver Reeder on the outrageous BBC political satire The Thick of It (2005-12). Having worked on his fair share of funny material as an actor and director, Addison seems open to letting his stars try things out — I got a strong sense that improvised lines may have been encouraged on set. And this leans into one of the more surprising credits of all — leading actress Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect 3 (2017), as producer.
Truth be told, Wilson’s worn that hat before, producing two TV shows in Bogan Pride (2008) and Super Fun Night (2013-14), and it seems the Netflix rom-com feature Isn’t It Romantic (2019) lent confidence to stretch herself further again. When the MPAA had originally slapped an R rating on The Hustle, it was Wilson who went to bat for a PG-13, citing similar male-lead comedies featuring equally raunchy material, ultimately winning the challenge. It’s an interesting time to be watching Wilson as she grows herself as a brand and a creative collaborator. The comedy on display in The Hustle does suggest she wants to be seen beyond the sort of shtick made famous by her popular ‘Fat Amy’ character from the Pitch Perfect trilogy (2012-17), and it’s that angle she’s slowly changing. Here, she gets to focus on gags that don’t just rely on her weight or idiosyncratic adlib, playing up goofball antics and discomfort — a scene where she is forced to eat a chip rubbed against a toilet bowl is a particular gross-out highlight.
The con is on!
Wilson’s co-star Anne Hathaway pretty much resurrects the same dynamic she deployed in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where her character Selina exploited the sympathies of men to launch surprise attacks. There is, of course, more of a light-hearted approach here, with one of the best moments being where Josephine cries on cue as a demonstration for Penny; it almost feels like a spoof of the moment that nabbed Hathaway her Oscar — crying her eyes out in close up for Les Misérables (2012). She plays off Wilson quite well, willing to be the firm and straight type to Wilson’s loose cannon, and they do really seem to be having a ball with each other. Together, as a duo, Wilson and Hathaway have a nice balance of comedic approaches, letting one another shine in turn.
Look, when it comes to comedies, I’m a very simple sort of person — make me laugh often enough, and you’ll usually find me forgiving narrative shortcomings. The Hustle was never going to seriously challenge my love for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin being one of my favorite comic actors of his era, but I still had a cracking good time with what was on offer. I think you’ll know from the outset whether you’ll be open enough to enjoying the ridiculous shenanigans of Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway. If you find yourself eye rolling and bemoaning the mention of either, you’re unlikely to find anything worthwhile here.
Perhaps file this one under ‘apocalyptic arthouse.’ Having made a hell of a splash in arthouse circles with her Iranian feminist vampire flick, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), director Ana Lily Amirpour followed it up with this game but misshapen capitalism metaphor, which takes tropes from Mad Max (1979), Escape From New York (1981), and several points in between, sticks them in a blender, and pours them out into the Texan desert to bake in a series of long, lingering, artfully shot scenes.
The ‘bad batch’ of the title are society’s rejects, outcast from America and forced to live as scavengers and predators in a sun-blasted desert where cults and cannibals hold sway. Into this world is thrust a young woman, Arlen (model Suki Waterhouse), who quickly runs afoul of some of the denizens and has her right arm and leg summarily lopped off and eaten to the strains of Ace of Base’s ‘All That She Wants’ (now that’s just salting the wound).
… next up on ‘Dark Tourist’
Arlen proves to be more resourceful and brutal than her appearance suggests, quickly escaping and carving out a place for herself in a ramshackle town called Comfort (the film’s symbolism is pretty on the nose). As the story progresses, she must contend with two key threats: the musclebound, cannibalistic Miami Man (Jason Momoa), who’s looking for his missing daughter, and messianic cult leader The Dream (Keanu Reeves), who holds power over Comfort.
There’s more to the plot than that and also, paradoxically, somewhat less. Amirpour is not interested in constructing a propulsive story and, for all that The Bad Batch has plenty of violence, body horror, drug use, and the odd flash of nudity, it frames these instances of gratuitousness in a deliberately soporific, slowly paced, episodic narrative. The Bad Batch wants to show us things, and give us the time to think about them, rather than drag us helter-skelter through its bizarre scavenger world.
Whether you’re up for that or not is your call, but the cast certainly is. In addition to Momoa, Reeves, and Waterhouse, Jim Carrey, The Truman Show (1998), turns up as a crazed hermit, while Diego Luna, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), plays The Dream’s in-house DJ, and Giovanni Ribisi … well, perhaps he just wandered onto set one day. That’s a pretty high profile ensemble for a willfully opaque artsy thinkpiece.
Hotter than a pistol
Still, what’s it thinking about? Capitalism, it seems to me, and the predatory nature thereof. With its apocalyptic, frontier-like culture and general lawlessness, the setting of The Bad Batch is a kind of libertarian fallen paradise. Everyone is hustling, and everyone is preying on each other, with the omnipresent threat of cannibalism the most obvious symbolic signpost of that. It’s weirdly, horribly egalitarian — the stakes and (lack of) rules in this nameless place are known to all, and most of the characters seem to accept their station in this rather cutthroat chain of being.
What’s interesting then, is that there’s almost no judgment leveled at the characters. If everyone is a predator concerned for their own survival, then there can be no villains. We, the audience, bring our own preconceptions and prejudices to the table, but Amirpour’s film either rejects them out of hand or at the very least forces us to scrutinize them. Arlen, our nominal hero, commits cold-blooded murder. Miami Man, introduced as a villain, is a loving father and a gifted artist, and our attitude towards him is gently manipulated as the film progresses. The Dream remains largely antagonistic, but that’s mainly because he runs a cult — in the cruel free market of The Bad Batch slavery/ theft of autonomy is the only real sin (there’s that libertarian subtext again).
‘Khal me maybe.’
It’s a canny approach, but it does raise another barrier for viewers used to more straight-laced hero/ villain dichotomies. Still, ‘barriers’ to ingress seems to be the name of the game here. The Bad Batch at times feels like a self-appointed barometer of cool: either you’re hip to what it’s laying down or you’re not, and if you fall into the latter category, the film isn’t particularly interested in helping you transition into the former. That’s either brave or obnoxious, depending on where you’re standing — gun to my head, I think it’s more brave than not. The Bad Batch is very much its own thing, and its pronounced indifference to commerciality is worth celebrating.
The Latin word parabellum, which translates to ‘prepare for war,’ couldn’t be a more fitting subtitle for this latest John Wick installment, which pits the entire criminal underworld against one man. If you’re new to the whole Wickian story, this neo-noir action series is based around Keanu Reeves’ titular ex-hitman, who finds himself back in the game after some reckless Russian mobsters slip up by slaying his dog, with Wick forced out of retirement to exact his revenge on those who’d wronged him; little do they know they’d awakened a man so dangerous he’d been nicknamed ‘Baba Yaga.’
For those just tuning in, super-assassin Wick breaks a cardinal rule at the end of 2017’s Chapter 2 by killing an adversary in New York’s Continental Hotel — a site marked as neutral ground for gangsters and governed by the iron-fisted High Table — and gets his membership revoked, finding himself ‘excommunicado’ with a $14 million price tag stamped on his head. Parabellum opens with the expelled Wick hobble-jogging across the rain-soaked neon streets of Times Square, trying to make the most of the hour-long head start — given to him by Continental enforcer/ long-time associate Winston (Ian McShane) — before the waves of contract killers come flooding in, trying to cash in on the hefty bounty. With John now an international target, everyone is after a piece of the prize, from innocent-looking street dwellers to NYC vendors, the flick bursting to life with a crazy clash in a library, where Wick dispatches a towering assailant (played by Serbian basketball player Boban Marjanović) with a vintage tome.
Tick Tock, Mr. Wick
It turns out that Keanu’s master marksman is going to need more than just his ‘Fu’ skills if he wishes to make it out of this ordeal alive, as the High Table’s hipster-looking ‘Adjudicator’ (Asia Kate Dillon) is called in to ensure that Wick is punished for his actions and that everyone who’s helped him is reprimanded. What ensues is a sprawling action extravaganza that stretches from the wet streets of New York City to the sandy dunes of the Casablanca desert, with Wick using anything he can find — knives, guns, axes and even horses — to take out goons (and John takes out a lot of goons); a bloodthirsty battle literally erupts every time he steps into a new location.
Slickly directed, once again, by stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski, and penned by creator Derek Kolstad, along with Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, Parabellum doesn’t offer anything new when it comes to narrative, writers simply deepening the already established mythology of the, dare I say it, Wick-iverse. What really shines here is the ultraviolent teeth-clenching action, moviemakers upping the ante when it comes to breathtaking stunt work, bloody knuckle beat downs and Chris Costa-esque gunplay — Reeves basically spends the entire movie using weird secret society customs (blood pacts and crucifixes) to stay alive long enough to move from one elaborately choreographed fight scene to the next.
Someone’s in the doghouse …
Seamlessly incorporating adrenaline-fueled combat with sleek GCI, bereft of any jarring jump cuts, Stahelski manages to create some of the most memorable action moments ever featured in a big budget Hollywood film. There’s a death-defying Villainess (2017) inspired motorcycle-katana skirmish, which takes place along a bare Manhattan bridge (that had me on the edge of my seat), a visceral knife-fight in a Chinatown antiques store, and the highlight, an inventive set piece that sees John fight alongside Halle Berry and her two trained canines as they try to escape a modish lair, this sequence showcasing their formidable hard-hitting badassery. Just on Berry, although only popping up in an extended cameo as Sofia, the head of Morocco’s Continental branch — who owes ‘Monsieur’ Wick a favor — she gets to do more ass-whooping here than she did in movies like 2002’s Die Another Day or Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) — I don’t know about you, but I’d be more than open to seeing a spin-off based on the character.
Each action sequence is elevated by the excellent work of returning production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and the superb cinematography of Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water (2017), who work together to create some truly graceful/ balletic imagery; the final skirmish held inside the Continental’s multilevel glass gallery space is both beautiful and brutal.
I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road …
As you’d expect Keanu Reeves — who’s well versed in various forms of kung fu — is terrific here, and even at the age of 54, looks stellar whether he’s crushing bones in a tattered suit or shooting enemies square in the head at close range; just like his Matrix films, he’s a man of very little words, yet still possesses that ‘cool factor.’ Reeves’ Matrix trilogy co-star Laurence Fishburne delivers another solid turn as the ‘all seeing’ Bowery King, who controls the city’s clandestine network of homeless informants and is targeted for punishment by the bureaucratic organization running the show. It’s also great to finally see Lance Riddick’s concierge, Charon, step out from behind the desk to get in on the action, taking out swarms of High Table insurgents in the flick’s final act.
Elsewhere, ’90s martial arts star Mark Dacascos, Only the Strong (1993), is a hoot as blade-wheedling sushi chef Zero, who’s recruited to eliminate Wick, even though he happens to be a big fan of his work; Dacascos portrays the balled-headed antagonist with a delightful sense of cheekiness, injecting some light comedy into the proceedings, playing the character like a starstruck fan who’s just met his idol. Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family (1991), also crops up in a small role as the Director — she’s a figure from John’s past, who just so happens to be a member of the High Table — Huston’s matriarch running a ballet academy in Harlem, where she trains orphans to become assassins. Look out for Gotham’s Robin Lord Taylor as a tattooed-and-pierced administrator working at the switchboard facility where dozens of Suicide Girl-looking receptionists monitor Wick’s bounty, as well as cameos from martial artists such as Tiger Hu Chen, Man of Tai Chi (2013), and Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014).
Well, this hardly seems fair.
Raising the bar in terms of high-octane thrills and violently graphic kills, John Wick: Chapter 3 is another solid addition to the highly stylized shoot em’ up series, which, outside of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films, remains the best action franchise going around these days. An ‘episode’ rather than an outright conclusion, it’s clear that Mr. Wick isn’t finished boosting his body count yet — and who knows, by the time he’s through, he may have killed more people than Hitler, Stalin, and Mao!
Centuries after the famous hangings of the 1690s, a brand-new witch-hunt is brewing in Salem. This time, however, the target is the ruthless hacker who is trawling through the digital realm for salacious details to leak to the public. Teenager Lily Colson (Australian Odessa Young) and her friends, including sisters Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), along with transgender teen Bex (Hari Nef) are digital natives, used to navigating a treacherous, scandal-dogged social landscape both online and off. The town’s adults, though — such as School Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo) and Em and Sarah’s next-door neighbor Nick (Joel McHale) — are not so deft, and chaos and violence soon erupt.
Assassination Nation wants to be Capital E Edgy, and there’s something perversely entertaining in its brazen insistence in pushing its perceived boundaries. The film opens with a barrage of self-imposed ‘trigger warnings’ cut together with blipvert-quick shots of later scenes: sex, violence, drug use, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and so on. It’s a bold statement of intent, but to what purpose?
‘It’s on, babydolls!’
It’s hard to say. For the lulz, as one character later muses? Assassination Nation is provocative, reveling in tits and gore, going for shock value at every possible opportunity, but its thesis is missing, presumed dead, and the clockwork-steady drip of nihilism and misanthropy soon grows tiresome. It’s not shocking; it’s boring — there’s no insight here, no depth of analysis, no anima. You’ve seen this before — the visual style comes courtesy of Fight Club (1999), the narrative structure from any number of sources where a stranger drags a conservative community’s dirty secrets kicking and screaming into the light. Given recent scandalous developments in his own life, perhaps Bryan Singer’s first feature, 1993’s Public Access, is the most appropriate touchstone. There’s also more than a dollop of The Purge (2013) in its DNA, as later in the film citizens take to the street en masse, masked and armed.
Writer and director Sam Levinson, an actor who has stepped behind the camera, has form for this kind of black satire. His 2011 feature debut, Another Happy Day, took the knife to the institution of family, using Ezra Miller’s caustic black sheep to tear apart the hypocrisies of the nuclear unit. Here, as there, the problem is never that Levinson doesn’t go far enough, it’s that he doesn’t go deep enough. His observations, accurate or not, are obvious, and he offers nothing we haven’t seen before.
Meet my circle of friends.
And we’ve seen a lot. For sure, there are probably people out there who would be surprised to learn that teenagers sext and sleep with older men, that down-low jocks don’t want their dalliances with transgender women known to the public, that conservative politicians hide kinky secrets, that social media mob justice has a body count, that misogyny and homophobia are alive and well in Middle America, and on, and on, and on … but the people blind to the current cultural climate are not the ones who are going to be seeking this sort of film out, while its natural audience, jaded bastards that we are, are not liable to be shocked by its tepid theatrics.
Your mileage may vary, of course, and there’s some fun to be had watching Young and co. take back the night at gunpoint, and various awful people — counting actress/ Instagram model Bella Thorne’s blue-haired cheerleader — get hoist on their own petards as the film progresses. But Assassination Nation is just a catchy title looking for a reason to exist, and the movie it’s appended to doesn’t give it one.
A few years ago while at the Cannes Film Festival, French producer-screenwriter Luc Bossi was so intrigued and inspired by a novel that he decided to phone filmmaker Ken Scott, Unfinished Business (2015), to see if he’d be interested in adapting the material. The book in question is 2013’s The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe, written by French author Romain Puértolas. Being so drawn to the humor, romance and adventure, Scott decided to jump onboard and direct.
The said text, you see, isn’t just your typical run-of-the-mill yarn, but a high-quality comedic romp that’s become successful around Europe thanks to its laughter, love, and redemption arc. So it’s not surprising that moviemakers have picked it up only a few years after its release, with so many others wanting a piece of this pie, the project morphing into a French-Belgian-Singapore-Indian-USA production. A real globetrotting journey, the shooting locations extend from Europe to the Middle East to India itself, where we first meet our protagonist.
Enter Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod (Dhanush), or Aja for short, who, dressed in a neat, vibrant, European-looking getup, wanders into a juvenile detention center, where he finds three young boys arguing and bickering with one other, then gently asks them all to take a seat. ‘Let me tell you a story,’ he begins, as he whole-heartedly dives into his ‘fantastical’ past, hoping to teach the ruffians a thing or two about life, love, and kindness.
Not a slumdog … or a millionaire.
As it turns out, Aja used to be just like those kids — he was smart, cunning and curious, but the only world he knew was that of his little village in Mumbai where he was raised by his overworked mother Siringh (Amruta Sant). When Aja runs into the wrong side of the law, he discovers that his family is actually poor and starts a magic routine with his cousin, using it as a platform to pickpocket innocent onlookers. When he’s not out swindling people, Aja is infatuatedly studying an IKEA catalog he gets a hold of, thoroughly gawking over his favorite furniture sets until his mother passes away. Now, with nothing holding him back, he decides to finally get out of his small pocket to see the big, bad world.
Having only a hundred Euros to his name, Aja jet sets to Paris to fulfill his mother’s life-long dream, to visit the City of Lights, the trip giving him an excuse to see the stunning designs of IKEA that he’s fantasized over first-hand. After reverse-swindling taxi driver Gustave (Gérard Jugnot), Aja enters the Paris branch of super-store IKEA where he begins to act out imaginary family situations with an American girl named Marie (Erin Moriarty) in an attempt to charm her. Marie, having ditched her ex-fiancée at the altar, has issues of her own, but is oddly enchanted by Aja’s quirky antics, quickly accepting a non-date meeting under the Eiffel Tower lights the following evening.
With a single note tucked in his pocket, Aja spends the night hiding out in an IKEA wardrobe, which, coincidentally, winds up being transported to England while he’s napping, Aja waking to find himself entangled with a bunch of illegal immigrants, led by a Sudanese man named Wiraj (Barkhad Abdi — the ‘I’m the captain now’ dude from 2013’s Captain Phillips). At border control, Officer Smith (Ben Miller) isn’t convinced of Aja’s credibility, shredding his ‘fake’ Euro note, and his possibly ‘legit’ passport, in turn leaving him in the lurch before breaking into a Monty Python-esque song-and-dance number. From there, Aja fights hard to return to Paris in the hope of rendezvousing with Marie, though winds up being dropped into a handful of other countries, embarking on a journey that’s choc-full of hard life-lessons, many serving as good advice for those delinquents listening to his tale in the slammer.
Adapted for the screen by writer Bossi, Aja’s journey probably isn’t as grand as one might expect. With that said, though, the script is still tight and relevant, Bossi keeping the best bits from the book without complicating matters too much. Aja’s travels are vast and sprawling, ranging from hot-air ballooning over the Mediterranean Sea to tearing up a dancefloor in a famous nightclub in Rome (which he travels to via a Louis Vuitton suitcase), and director Ken Scott wholly ensures that viewers appreciate the full variety of these experiences, so much so that a bulk of the scenes have been shot in the actual locations in which they’re set. Audiences get to stopover at famous European landmarks while being treated to picturesque views of Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East. So, visually, the picture looks great. And heightening the overall sense and wonder is the colorful, often whimsical costume design by Valérie Ranchoux, Farewell, My Queen (2012). After all, this is a fable, narrated by Aja himself, who interprets the material as an exaggerated adventure rather than a melancholy real-life account.
The flick is also a big cultural experience; it starts with a glimpse of the lifestyle and poverty in parts of India (throw in a Bollywood number for good measure), before moving to the high life of Italy, and the struggle experienced in third world countries like Libya. Fortunately, there are no political statements here, filmmakers merely giving viewers a glimpse of the world from the eyes of a man who’s only just discovering the cruelties and injustices around him, the tone lightened by spurts of humor.
With the film being an international production, the diverse cast also reflects the story’s cultural variety, with Dhanush, Raanjhanaa (2013), who’s a Tamil cinema star, giving a charming performance as lead Aja. Along for the ride are Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo, The Past (2013), who portrays fictional movie star Nelly Marnay and Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, our frontman getting some fun assists from Frenchman Gérard Jugnot, The Chorus (2004), and Tunisian Abel Jafri, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), both of whom have fairly minor roles but add a pinch of flavor to this ethnic fest!
Sari not Sari
Running at a brisk 92 minutes — plenty of time considering the simplistic nature of the narrative — The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir breezes along at a modest pace, never delivering anything too surprising, edgy or suspenseful, with filmmakers, in the end, managing to drop in a couple of good take-home lessons/ messages. Ultimately, while Fakir’s adventure might be a little too ordinary (rather than extraordinary), never breaking new ground despite all its diversity, it’s still worth your time, providing enough to warrant a pass!
Remember Pokémon GO!, the augmented reality mobile app that took the world by storm in the latter part of 2016, which saw millions of users (across the globe) travel to nearby PokéStops and local Gyms to catch and battle Pokémon with online users via their smartphones? Well, take away the screens and imagine that those cute and cuddly (sometimes scary) creatures actually roamed free, and were able to be tamed, trained and captured. And that’s the setting for the first-ever live-action Pokémon film, Detective Pikachu, which takes its cues from a 2016 Nintendo 3DS video game of the same name.
As far backdrops are concerned, this is a pretty nifty setup, borrowing heavily from Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 masterwork Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which presented audiences with an alternative version of 1940s Hollywood, one where toons and humans lived side-by-side in harmony — for the most part anyway. But that’s not the only facet Detective Pikachu sponges from the Oscar-winning animation-live-action hybrid; it also adopts the whodunit formula, giving us an inventive, family-friendly urban fantasy thriller, pairing an ex-Pokémon trainer with a yellow, rosy-cheeked mouse-like pocket monster, who team up to unravel a missing persons mystery.
A wild Pikachu appeared!
For those who know bupkis about the IP, Pokémon is a Japanese media sensation created by Satoshi Tajiri, the brand starting with video games and trading cards built around fictional elemental-powered ‘animals,’ before moving into the realm of TV, spawning a long-running series (now in its 22nd season) and twenty odd animated films. Since its genesis in 1996, Pokémon has become a cross-cultural, multi-generational phenomenon. This new film, however, chooses to focus on the property’s most iconic character, an electric-type Pokémon known as a Pikachu, who’s brought to life by Deadpool himself, Mr. Ryan Reynolds, providing the voice and facial motion capture for the titular tyke. And although Reynolds’ raucous vocals may initially feel like a disconnect, rubbing against the furball’s cutsie outer shell, his flagrant mouthiness punches up the pint-sized private eye, unveiling what a PG-13 Wade Wilson could potentially sound like.
Our story trails 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), an insurance clerk/ former Pokémon trainer who’s summoned to the big smoke after his PI father, Harry, disappears following a freak car accident. Goodman, you see, comes from a different side of town, one where Pokémon live out their lives in the wilderness and are hunted by wannabe Pokémon Masters, who collect the creatures to use in duels. This crushing news, however, leads Tim to Ryme City, a bustling ultra-modern metropolis where man and Pokémon have learned to peacefully coexist, this utopia — think an amalgamation of NYC, Tokyo, and London — the dream and design of visionary billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy).
Don’t Pokémon And Drive
After sorting Harry’s affairs, Tim heads to his dad’s studio to gather some belongings — he’s basically presumed dead by his estranged son — coming face-to-face with a diminutive talking Pikachu in a deerstalker cap, who, apart from having a major caffeine addiction, reveals himself to be his father’s former partner, the critter losing his memory in the crash that supposedly claimed Harry’s life. Naturally, Tim is a little startled to hear a Pikachu speak — as far as Pokémon go, they’re pretty linguistically limited — but Sparky soon convinces the kid that his father may very well still be alive and that together (Tim can hear the Pika and the Pika can talk to other Pokémon) they can solve the mystery. And so, the two set off to find the whereabouts of Goodwin senior, stumbling on a shocking revelation that could rock the entire foundation of the Pokémon world.
First and foremost, Detective Pikachu, while certainly catering its core audience (the fans), is never alienating, meaning that anyone who knows zilch about Pokémon can easily follow along — prior product knowledge is not a must. Credit goes to the film’s writers — director Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly, and The Tick (2019) producers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, with story assist from Nicole Perlman — who have fashioned a narrative that’s faithful to the source yet accessible to newbies, superbly capturing the essence and DNA of the games/ anime.
Fire and Electricity don’t mix.
While the story doesn’t go anywhere ‘mind-blowing,’ moviemakers playing it relatively safe — it’s more or less a just buddy cop film littered with Pokémon — there’s hardly a dull moment. Scribes Hernandez and Samit are clearly no strangers to quirky comedy, injecting the picture with some wildly eccentric set pieces, while contributions from Connolly, Jurassic World (2015), and Perlman, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), each having penned effects heavy epics prior, serve in providing grandiosity and edge — so it feels like a big summer blockbuster.
If there’s one major setback it would have to be the convoluted plot, which is far too twisty for minors — there are simply too many crooks and turns to register, while the hard-bitten detective patter does become a bit adult-y at times, with the climax a tad too scary (but then again, Roger Rabbit was pretty dark). Fortunately, the cast of adorable creatures and vivid action scenes are designed to distract younger audiences; the highlight here is a neat kid-friendly ‘good cop, bad cop’ act that pokes fun at Pokémon Mr. Mime. And, really, if you stop to think about it, the big-bad’s endgame doesn’t make a lot of sense either.
It’s also mildly frustrating that diehards only get to see one all-out monster-on-monster skirmish, this energetic, hard-hitting sequence the film’s clear standout — watching the chubby rodent-like ‘Detective Pikachu’ take on a grizzled, fire-breathing third-evolution Charizard is all sorts of awesome, the sequence brilliantly punctuated by gaggle of Loudreds, who drop some seriously sick beats. There’s also a great little moment where a furious Cubone escapes from a standard red, white and black Pokéball, which, sadly, is the only Monster Ball we get to see in the entire film.
On that, fanboys will go gaga over the plethora of Pokémon populating the neon-lit streets of Ryme City — see if you can spot a slumbering Snorlax or a four-armed Machamp directing traffic. The sight of a squad of Squirtles helping some firemen put out a blaze had me grinning from ear to ear. And if it’s action you’re after, filmmakers treat us to a handful of highly imaginative set pieces; there’s a forest fight with a gang of gnarly Greninjas, which concludes with a ground-breaking discovery, an apartment/ rooftop pursuit that features an unusually volatile troop of Aipom, and an exhilarating areal showdown, pitting our heroes against the menacing humanoid Mewtwo.
What makes each of these sections so thrilling is the savvy and know-how of director Rob Letterman, who cut his moviemaking teeth helming animated features for Dreamworks, with Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) and Shark Tale (2004) being his first two films. This guy knows how to structure a story around CG characters, having adapted the 2015 live-action Goosebumps. So unsurprisingly, the interaction between the digital beasties and humans is pretty flawless, the photorealistic Pokémon inspired by the gorgeous artwork of RJ Palmer (who was recruited to work on the film as a concept artist), rendered in stunning detail by the skilled VFX team. Moreover, the world of Detective Pikachu has been coated in a funky film-noir flavor, Ryme City a bizarre blend of Eastern-style cyberpunk, its dripping wet streets, smoky alleyways, and neon glows reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). It kinda shouldn’t work, but it somehow does.
‘The case is closed, but still open.’
On things that shouldn’t work, Ryan Reynolds wholly steals the show as the lil’ lightning bolt-shaped tail hero, imbuing Pikachu with Capital A Attitude — we all know that Reynolds has serious wit and a knack for this type of comedy, throwing out quips that appeal to both grownups and young’uns. Justice Smith, Paper Towns (2015), does great work here as protagonist Tim, hammering all the humor as well as the drama — this is probably his best performance to date. Kathryn Newton, Blockers (2018), is okay as aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens, who teams up with Tim to crack the case, even if her headache-prone sidekick, Psyduck, leaves more of a dent. Ken Watanabe, Inception (2010), and the ever-watchable Suki Waterhouse, The Bad Batch (2016), also crop up, each given mere scraps of screen time, while Pokémon buffs will totally delight in the crafty casting of Ikue Ōtani, who provides Pikachu’s ‘pikapika’ dialogue, which is heard by everyone other than Justice Smith, the same actress that voices the character in the animated telly series, movies and games.
Exploring paternity, largely the bond that exists between father and son, Detective Pikachu is a film about connection, elevated by rich world-building, roller-coaster action, and some cool-looking Pokémon. There’s a spoiler-y last-minute revelation which I dug, that could potentially divide audiences, but this is pretty standard big-budget filmmaking for the most part. While far from perfect, Detective Pikachu has enough bells and whistles to warrant a watch — who knows, it might even hit you right in the jellies. For Pokémon addicts, though, gotta catch this in theatres!
The schlubby dude/ hot girl dynamic has been explored countless times in cinema and sitcoms. Hell, Seth Rogen, who stars here as leftie-journo-turned-political-speechwriter Fred Flarsky, pretty much defined the trope for the current generation with 2007’s Knocked Up. Here, in his third collaboration with director Jonathan Levine following 2011’s 50/50 and 2015’s The Night Before, he sets his sights considerably higher than that film’s Katherine Heigl: his romantic partner this time out is the Secretary of State and Presidential hopeful Charlotte Field, played by the formidable Charlize Theron.
For his part, Freddy’s had a crush on Charlotte since she used to babysit him when he was 13 years old. For her, she needs to boost her perceived sense of humor before taking a tilt at the big job after the current president (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk, having a ball), a former TV star, deciding to forego a second term in favor of breaking into the movies. A chance meeting at a charity fundraising event puts them together and, as Freddy joins Charlotte’s team to spice up her speeches on the campaign trail, a romance is kindled.
She’s high society. He’s just high.
It’s a romance with terrible optics, of course; Freddy is a bullheaded, drug-taking manchild — a Seth Rogen character, in other words — and Charlotte is a polished and poised career politician. Staffer Maggie Millikin (June Diane Raphael, one of the film’s comedic MVPs) takes pains to point out what a terrible match they are — it’d be better for her public image if she’d date someone like Alexander Skarsgård’s Canadian Prime Minister James Steward, for instance — and the road to happiness is further obstructed by Freddy’s distaste for the compromises inherent in political horsetrading. Still, this is a rom-com, and our ultimate destination is never in any doubt — it’s all in how we get there.
And really, Long Shot is an excellent rom-com: smart, progressive, drug-friendly (it’s a Seth Rogen joint), kink-positive (Freddy is surprised by some of Charlotte’s sexual preferences), and howlingly funny. There’s also, crucially, palpable chemistry between the two leads — an easy interplay that makes you believe that yes, in the moment at least, these two share a strong enough connection for their love to make sense. Importantly, it’s not just Rogen generating the laughs and Theron looking fabulous, but they both get their share of comedy, and a sequence where Charlotte, coming down hard after a drugged-up night clubbing with Freddie, must negotiate a thorny diplomatic hostage situation, is the film’s standout comedic set piece.
When life gives you a shot, take it.
The film’s stated politics are a bit centrist for my personal tastes, though. We never actually find out if Charlotte is a creature of the Dems or the GOP (although her environmental platform suggests the former), and at one point Freddy’s supportive best friend, Lance (the ever-watchable O’Shea Jackson Jr.) delivers a fairly on the nose ‘why can’t we all just get along’ speech that nimbly sidesteps the multitude of sins committed by the current administration; this, however, is balanced by some solid in-narrative feminist and progressive values. Essentially, Freddy’s journey is to learn to be supportive of his more successful ladylove, which is pretty unusual for a film of this stripe.
As my friend and colleague Grant Watson observed, Long Shot is much better on the screen than it ever sounds on paper — all the hyperbole and praise in the world isn’t going to get you into a cinema if the phrase ‘romantic comedy’ immediately dims your enthusiasm. This is, however, one of the best examples of the form: charming, romantic, blisteringly funny, uplifting, the whole shebang. Make time for it.
A lot of interesting ideas get lightly touched on in The Aftermath, director James Kent’s romantic drama adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name. It is, after all, set in Hamburg in the immediate aftermath of World War II and focuses on an affair between a British woman who lost her son to German bombing, and a German man who lost his wife to British bombing, so there’s certainly plenty of emotional and political grist for the story mill.
That grist largely remains unground, though. I’ve not read the source novel, but as depicted on the screen The Aftermath leaves a lot of potential conflict and drama on the table, almost uniformly choosing the safest and most strife-free narrative path. Which may be sensible, but it also makes for a fairly inert film.
Two worlds collide.
In detail: Keira Knightley is Rachael Morgan, packed off to post-war Berlin when her Army officer husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), is sent there to help administrate the country after the destruction of the Nazi regime. Alexander Skarsgård is Stephen Lubert, the architect whose house is requisitioned for the Morgans to stay in, meaning Stephen and his daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), are off to a refugee camp; except that the terribly decent Lewis has a change of heart and decides the Luberts can stay on as long as they keep out of the way – not a big ask, considering the stately manse they share.
This does, in retrospect, turn out to be a bad idea, as Rachael and Stephen’s twinned tragic losses, along with Lewis’s work-mandated absences, soon see the pair embarking on a torrid affair, albeit a very restrained one.
There’s a lot of potential in this story concept and The Aftermath frequently looks like its going to capitalize on it at several points in the film, dancing around themes like the poor treatment of Germans by occupying Brits, the radicalization of German youths in the postwar landscape, the horribly empathetic link forged by shared trauma, and more. It never quite manages to fully engage with its own political and cultural implications, though, and even when the drama kicks up a few notches in the back half, the suspense generated barely registers.
We only see what we want to see.
Yet there are elements in play that are enjoyable to some degree. The cast is great across the board, and although everyone is very much in Very Serious Actor mode, the film does remember to give us our mandated dose of pretty people doing (ostensibly) dramatic things — if the sight of Alexander Skarsgård moodily chopping wood in a cable knit sweater to assuage his longing for Keira Knightley will get your blood pumping, this film has got you. The production design by Sonja Klaus, A Good Year (2006), gleams with furniture polish and brass fittings whenever the light isn’t being absorbed by the dense wool of winter uniforms or obscured by smoke from the bombed-out city. It certainly looks the business — there’s just not enough horsepower under the hood to get this beautiful beast up to speed.
Which is a damn shame, because this kind of adult-oriented literary drama is one of the few mid-budget cinema forms left in the current landscape, and when one of them doesn’t perform to spec, it’s taking up space that a better example of the form could occupy. The Aftermath is not a terrible film, but it’s a disappointingly mediocre one.
Alright, stop me when this starts to sound familiar.
Riley North (Jennifer Garner) is living a decent life, with her ray of sunshine being her ten-year-old daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming), and loving husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) supporting them. The thing is, Riley and Chris are struggling to make ends meet. Despite this, the couple decides to put aside their worries for their daughter’s sake, treating her to a Christmas carnival for her birthday. While leaving the fair with ice-cream, Chris and Carly are gunned down in a drive-by shooting, with Riley getting wounded, but surviving, this a message from powerful cartel leader Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), whom Chris was thinking of robbing.
In the aftermath, Riley manages to successfully identify the gang members responsible, but the subsequent court-case is short-lived thanks to insufficient evidence. Enraged, Riley tries to attack the killers but fails, retreating.
Five years later, Riley returns reborn as a hardened assassin, determined to destroy everyone involved in her family’s deaths.
A brief moment of enjoy-mint
It’s probably unfair to cite unoriginality in a classic revenge setup such as this, but perhaps if we’re to mention that the writer, Chad St. John, was responsible for the proof-of-concept short sequel of sorts The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (2012), and the more well-known hardcore action feature London Has Fallen (2016), things might come more into focus. The guy digs angry, violent retaliation.
Paired with the often humorless Frenchman Pierre Morel, who’s made a living out of such morbid action affairs like The Gunman (2015) and, oh yeah, the film that effectively typecast Liam Neeson, 2008’s Taken, what we have here in Peppermint is an ugly, mean-spirited film.
In a surprise to no one, the best thing the movie has going for it is the return of Jennifer Garner as an action anti-hero. Having done five years on J.J. Abrams’ hit TV series Alias (2001-06) then quite consciously removing herself from the action genre altogether after 2007’s The Kingdom, choosing generally lighter fare such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009), Garner’s fans have wondered when they’d get a chance to see her kick ass again. When she gets into full swing — channeling a kind of John Wick-like directness in her use of firearms — you’d swear Garner never stopped training. What’s horribly unfortunate, though, is the path that Chad St. John and Pierre Morel have chosen to showcase, in what could’ve been a fist-pumping homecoming.
Still got it
For starters, the film awkwardly begins medias res, halfway through Riley’s quest as she mercilessly knocks off her next victim, before flashing back to one heck of an eye-rolling section, with Jeff Hephner, Interstellar (2014), and young Cailey Fleming, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), struggling to convince beyond daytime soap opera standards. I mean, when you see how much opportunity Garner is trying to give them to shine, it’s no wonder the typically tattooed gangbangers end up using all their bullets on them. The way editor Frédéric Thoraval, Sinister (2012), attempts to cut right through their scenes suggests he probably knew they were in dudsville too, with the opening trying to keep viewers patient for the massacre to follow.
When we do get to the killings, it’s pretty friggin’ relentless. Some of the stunt work is quite good with a mix of close-encounters, very direct gunplay and, you guessed it, explosions, with an awesome giant ass warehouse blast being a sure-fire highlight. The thing that’s hard to shake off, though, is the incredibly nasty and bleak atmosphere of it all.
While movie violence can often feel gratuitous, what’s hard to decipher in this story is whether we’re supposed to cheer in blood-soaked ‘justice,’ like in the original Death Wish (1974), or feel the horror of a protagonist going way too far — think the incredibly twisted Korean thriller I Saw The Devil (2010). I wasn’t a fan of Taken for the exact same reason, and felt as though there wasn’t any sort of moral compass to guide a reaction; the film seems to try and win patrons over by having a charismatic lead do very bad things to very bad people. It sort of makes one want to take a long shower afterward, after wallowing in such a grimy place.
‘Need a mint?’
Stemming from this, while filmmaker Morel is content throwing out any sense of morality, he also tosses away any satisfactory explanation as to how Riley North goes from essentially echoing the damsel-in-distress version of Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) to her take-no-prisoners soldier in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).
Characters in these plots are either everyday people that learn how to be violent — James Wan’s highly underseen Death Sentence (2007) — or are deceptively quiet individuals with troubled pasts, becoming reawakened — hello The Equalizer (2014). There is catharsis to be had in either approach when done right. Peppermint tries to have it both ways, without any real investment in unpacking either.
While Sarah Connor’s journey is explained, thanks to a healthy gap between installments and smooth exposition from support characters, Peppermint uses a muddy YouTube video to expose what Riley’s apparently been up to in the time jump, getting involved in martial arts in an underground octagon somewhere in Thailand, which is meant to tell us everything we need to know. What about showing us the blood, sweat and tears shed in a montage where we see Riley harden into a killer? How about exploring the setbacks, making her focus all the more determined? It’s a wasted opportunity. The revenge genre relies heavily on leaning into the darker desires of its audience, and scenes like these not only would’ve transitioned Riley’s character from loving mother to brutal assassin, but also created an atmosphere of anticipation that would’ve sweetened the payoff.
Vengeance is a mother!
Jennifer Garner devotees will clamor over one another to get a look at Peppermint and will probably be satisfied enough, but for anyone else, there are much better revenge outings out there.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the movie’s rather stupid title — Riley’s daughter orders a peppermint ice cream before grabbing a hail of bullets, so I guess it’s a ‘last happy memory’ thing. I rather prefer the explanation through the dialogue featured in the so-bad-it’s-good trailer (which is missing in the actual feature), where Riley tells her daughter that she has ‘peppermint in her butt.’ While we may not learn the true origin of Riley’s badassery, at least we know that this movie came from someone’s ass.
You wait for years for a good, family friendly, cryptid-themed animated film to come along, and then suddenly two show up at almost the same time. Only a little over six months ago we got treated to Warner Animation Group’s Smallfoot (2018), and now comes the response to that call in the form of Laika’s Missing Link.
Essentially a buddy comedy, Missing Link sees the titular character, a Sasquatch voiced by Zach Galifianakis, Puss in Boots (2011), reach out to failed adventurer and wannabe cryptozoologist Sir. Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman’s pipes) for some much-needed aide. The creature is the last of his kind and needs help getting to a hidden valley in the Himalayas where he hopes to find a distant branch of his furry family (yeti, of course).
‘Say chalk and cheese!’
For his part, Lionel wants glory and the respect of the Explorers’ Society in London — naturally, he will need to learn some lessons as things progress. And so the two set off for Link’s home in the Pacific Northwest. Standing in their way: bounty hunter Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lionel’s rival, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), to stop them by any means necessary. Reluctantly abetting them: Lionel’s sparky ex, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). Charming us: Laika’s delightfully handmade-looking stop-motion animation and a rather wonderful, whimsical rendition of a fantastical late 19th century.
Animation house Laika have form for this sort of thing — over the years they’ve given us the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline (2009), the bizarre fantasy The Boxtrolls (2014), the Japanese myth/ Beatles mash-up Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and more. They’re the anti-Pixar in a way, doing smaller scale, decidedly offbeat movies that don’t seem to sacrifice idiosyncrasy for popularity (no disrespect to Pixar, but their broad popular appeal is very much down to always aiming for, well, broad popular appeal). So, an eccentric story about a gentle Bigfoot (who at one point chooses the name Susan for himself) and an ambitious, foolhardy monster hunter learning to get along is right up their alley.
… things are about to get hairy.
Yet there’s something missing. Kubo is the company’s masterpiece, and Missing Link doesn’t get within a parsec of that film’s thematic complexity and emotional resonance (take all the tissues to Kubo, folks). Indeed, the script by writer-director Chris Butler, ParaNorman (2012), seems a little undercooked, never strongly commenting on the colonialism that underpins its setting and story. All the pieces are there, but they never line up correctly. Similarly, ‘Susan’s’ status as the last of his kind never quite has the impact it should, and Lionel’s relationship with Adelina — a clear riff on Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood — fails to spark.
Missing Link’s aesthetic, however, is absolutely on point, and its carved-wood-looking characters and elaborate, exaggerated sets are worth staring at for days. The voice cast is all in top form, with Galifianakis’ amiable, innocent title character a standout. The pace rarely flags, so you won’t find yourself checking your watch. Still, even for an outfit with such limited output, this feels very much like mid-level Laika. Having said that, if this is what their median quality looks like, they’re punching well above their weight.