Film roundup from February 2020

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Here’s my rundown of most of the films I saw last month and please be aware that this post does include some minor spoilers along the way.

Fighting With My Family (2019) is a WWE branded comedy drama written and directed by the ‘lanky goggle-eyed weirdo’ Stephen Merchant of The Office fame and featuring a few cameos of WWE wrestlers including Dwayne Johnson. I’ve not been a fan of wrestling since the days of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but I do like a good comedy and seeing Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) in the trailer sold it to me.

It’s a fairly formulaic rags to riches sporting success story based on the true story of Norfolk wrestler Saraya Knight played by Florence Pugh who became a WWE fighter. There is a good juxtaposition of the gritty and unglamorous face of the club wrestling circuit in the UK and the hyper-real glitz of the televised WWE matches. Despite the knowledge of how these films always play out it was a good watch with some fun comedy along the way.

There are no laughs to be had in Seoul Station (2016) the animated prequel to zombie film Train to Busan both directed by Sang-ho Yeon. In much the same way as every other zombie film goes, several groups of strangers are thrown together by fate and try to survive a zombie apocalypse in downtown Seoul. Almost every zombie movie trope is contained within the film and it’s basically a case of trying to predict who is going to survive by the end of the film.

Since I had not seen Train to Busan at this point, it was a mystery as to which character might make it. I won’t spoil it for you here. I’ll just say that it is really only good viewing for zombie film fans who need a fix of the same kind of zombie action contained within the live action film.

I am not a big fan of zombie films. So much so I have never seen an episode of The Walking Dead and don’t intend to. The closest I get is the Resident Evil films, and that’s more for the sci-fi action than the zombies. Nevertheless, I was really impressed with Train to Busan (2016).

It is much better than it’s animated prequel with much more fleshed out characters and novel action sequences. The film makes you care about the potential victims who find themselves trapped on a train with a bunch of zombies and with chaos exploding in the world off the tracks.

There are some interesting predicaments laid out for our unlucky heroes to solve and these zombies are far from the walking dead – they tend to run and attack viciously. As usual the zombies do have one weakness and that is that if they can’t see you then they tend toward passivity. So there’s a lot made of papering over windows, creeping around in the dark when the train goes through some very long tunnels and making noises to distract them.

I won’t reveal what happens in the end, but I found it very moving and was impressed that the filmmakers had managed to get that reaction out of my cynical heart.

Mile 22 (2018) is a fairly standard action drama starring Mark Wahlberg as a rather annoying and egotistical team leader of a small squad of top-secret tactical agents operating in Indonesia. He has a thing with snapping rubber bands around his wrist to stop his anger – something that I’ve seen in another film I can’t pin down – and that’s really the extent of his character development.

The team have to try and smuggle a mysterious police officer played by Indonesian star of the most excellent The Raid and The Raid 2 Iko Uwias, while being hunted by hordes of generic bad guys wearing black and driving motorbikes and whatnot. The action is visceral, ridiculously gung-ho and a seemingly void of any standard operation combat procedure. There’s a bit of a twist at the end, but you’d have to be drunk not to notice the way it’s headed. The oddest thing about the film is that it has not satisfactory conclusion and seems to be begging for a sequel, Mile 23 perhaps.

Death Wish (2018) is a remake of director Michael Winner’s 1974 classic starring Charles Bronson. Bruce Willis takes Bronson’s role as an ER surgeon who turns from a man paid to save lives to a vigilante intent on killing as many bad guys as he can. This change is prompted by a home invasion which leaves his wide dead and his daughter in a coma.

It’s a fairly robust and uncompromising revenge flick directed by the prolific horror writer/director/producer Eli Roth. Whether the Seventies film really needed a reboot is debatable and this modern version certainly (sensibly?) doesn’t do anything dreadful different from the Bronson version. I enjoyed it more that Mile 22, but it didn’t really stick in my mind likeTrain to Busan, My Cousin Rachel or The Handmaiden did.

The Handmaiden (2016) looked like an Ang Lee period drama and so had languished in my watchlist for a few years before I realised it was directed by Chan-wook Park who directed the excellent Lady Vengeance, and the original and hugely enjoyable Old Boy. Boy had I got this film wrong in my mind. It’s nothing like I imagined. A period version of The Handmaid’s Tale this is most certainly not.

A lowly thief Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), but is secretly plotting with conman posing as a count (Jung-woo Ha) to defraud her. Lady Hideko lives with her perverted Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho) who from a young age has made her read erotic fiction to gentleman callers at their house. Before that he did the same thing with her mother who hanged herself from the large cherry tree outside her bedroom window.

Lady Hideko wants to get away from her uncle but we are left wondering if she is plotting with the fake count against Sook-Hee, with whom she has a secret lesbian affair, or whether she is in fact plotting against the men with Sook-Hee. Who is playing who? That’s the big question. The story is presented in a three-part format that shows you different angles of the same twisting plot and keeps you guessing to the end.

Long Shot (2019) is an American comedy starring Seth Rogen as a scruffy but idealistic journalist Fred Flarsky who works as a speech writer for his ex-babysitter and childhood crush, now beautiful presidential candidate Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron). The seemingly mismatched duo inevitably fall in love and have to deal with all the hurdles placed in their way by the screenwriters to reach a satisfactory conclusion where love overcomes everything else.

It’s standard stuff with the two falling out at the end of Act 2 and then getting back together in Act 3, but it’s a worthwhile watch if you like romcoms and Rogen and Theron certainly do everything in their not insubstantial powers as comedy actors to make the film work. There’s a really good cameo performance from an almost unrecognisable Andy Serkis and there’s not much more to say really. Moving on…

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) needed to climb out from the shadow of the truly awful Genisys and the not particularly well-received Salvation (although I quite enjoyed it). So what better collaboration to turn things around than director Tim Miller (Deadpool) and writer James Cameron who penned the original films, plus the return of Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor? I was truly intrigued after seeing a very long trailer at the cinema. Besides, I have a soft spot for any offering the Terminator franchisers are willing to cobble together – I even enjoyed the ill-fated TV show The Sarah Conner Chronicles starring the aforementioned Lena Headey in the titular role.

With a female augmented human, played by Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) with a Captain Marvel attitude, sent back in time to protect a dark-fated girl called Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes – a Colombian actor I have never seen before) the film feels like a replay of Terminator 2, especially when a new model of shape-shifting terminator (Gabriel Luna – another new face for me) is sent back to kill Dani. It’s rather laughable that the events of Terminator 2 are cancelled out in one fell swoop in a flashback scene.

When we finally get to see Arnie, he is playing the terminator that killed John Connor, now living as a curtain salesman with a woman and child. While it’s nice to see him reprise his role and play with some of the tropes that have been established through the franchise, the attempts at injecting some humour into the otherwise violent action film, like a Imperial stormtrooper, invariably miss their mark.

There are some great special effects and action sequences, the usual need to let the laws of physics and logic fly out of the window, and overall its a good instalment of the series. However, given the shit that went before it, that’s hardly high praise.

The Laundromat (2019) on Netflix barely hangs together as a Steven Soderbergh film and I was surprised to see his name in the final credits. A supposed damning and slightly comedic expose of the Panama Papers scandal it follows the story of a widow (Meryl Streep) investigating an insurance fraud after the tragic death or her husband. It stars and is narrated by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman who play Panama City lawyers exploiting the various nefarious loopholes of the global financial system.

With a runtime of only an hour and half, it feels longer and suffers from disjointed storytelling and over-stylised portrayals of real events. It is a strange subject to try to make into a light-hearted drama (which at times felt like a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and might have best been presented as a serious documentary, or at least a docu-drama along the lines of the excellent Narcos. I’ve just finished binge watching Narcos: Mexico Season 2, and perhaps my limited enjoyment of this film is down to that.

My Cousin Rachel (2017) is an adaptation of the novel by Daphne Du Maurier starring Rachel Weisz (The Lobster, The Favourite)  as the titular Rachel. Recently widowed, she comes to stay with Philip, the cousin of her late husband, played by Sam Claflin (who played the trident wielding Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games sequels). Claflin for the most part seems to be doing a passable impersonation of an emotional confused and hugely apologetic Hugh Grant.

Philip plots revenge against Rachel, who he believes was responsible for his cousin’s death (because of letters he has received from him before he died, and the hastily scrawled notes he finds among his belongings). We are left guessing for most of the film whether Rachel is a devious gold-digger playing with Philip’s emotions or whether his cousin’s madness was the root of his accusations of a murderous plot.

Philip quickly falls for Rachel’s charms and writer/director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has to tread carefully not to overplay either side of the possible ‘truth’ within the story. He expertly drops red herrings and clues along the way and leaves us guessing right up until the tragic end. Rachel Weisz is outstanding and indeed is the only reason I watched this film as, like zombie films, I tend to avoid period dramas like the plague.

Zombie Image adapted from original by Paulo Wolf from Pixabay

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