July movie roundup

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I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago rambling about the movies I had seen up to that point in July. This relatively spoiler-free post adds to that list. Despite the easing of COVID-19-related measures in the UK, I’m still staying safe at home and so I have more time to watch more films than usual:

Birds Of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) is sort of a sequel to Suicide Squad – a film I had mixed feelings about despite Jared Leto’s brilliant performance as The Joker.  I went into watching Birds of Prey with low expectations and an open mind, especially after learning that Ewan McGregor had been cast as the bad guy (Black Mask). Margot Robbie reprises her role as one Harley Quinn who, as one YouTube commentator put it so well, has “more chemistry with a breakfast sandwich than Henry Cavill did with Amy Adams in three DCEU movies.” It’s a fun movie with a slightly dark edge to it and McGregor is actually pretty good as Black Mask.

The Birds of Prey don’t really assemble until quite late in the film once a lot of character development and back-story has been provided for each character. It makes for a slightly lop-sided film but gives more screen time to the fantabulous emancipation Robbie’s Harley Quinn which to my mind ain’t no bad thing. The style of the film and the soundtrack are great and I can’t think of any weak performances among the Birds. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) is particularly good as The Huntress and there’s some great dialogue between the gang. All in all it was better than the film that spawned it, but not a patch on many of the MCU films.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) is a Takashi Miike (First Love) period drama set in old times feudal Japan. Like many films in this genre, it is a tale of honour and revenge. This one involves a family struggling to make ends meet haunted by the shadow of their Samurai traditions. Ebizô Ichikawa’s character plays a ronin, who scrapes an earning making umbrellas. When his much-loved son in law meets an untimely demise in the courtyard of the local feudal lord, after a desperate gamble to earn money, he tries to right the wrongs done to his family.

Unlike a lot of Takashi Miike’s films, Death of a Samurai is rather slow-moving and also not particularly uplifting. However, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I much prefer these thoughtful, some might say ponderous, Samurai films than the out and out action films based in that period of history. There’s some beautiful scenes amongst the angst and suffering, and good attention to historic practices and detail.   

Rambo: Last Blood (2019) is in some ways cut from the same cloth as Death of a Samurai in that a battle-hardened aged soldier with some ghosts tries to right the wrongs done to his family by a bunch of bad guys. Following on from 2008’s ultra-violent cartoonish Rambo, this sequel sees John Rambo raising horses somewhere near the Mexican border on an American farm. When he’s not training horses, he’s digging a series of tunnels under the farm which are very obviously going to be the setting for the finale of the film where he cuts, shoots and stabs the crap out of a bunch of nameless goons who can’t shoot straight. 

By way of leading up to the carnage, Rambo’s ‘adopted’ daughter (Yvette Monreal) goes off to Mexico to meet her long-lost father. He’s not at all interested in meeting her, so she goes off to a club with her shady friend where she ends up in a whole heap of Taken style trouble. Rambo pops over the border to rescue her, upsets a bunch of nameless goons who can’t shoot straight, gets beat to an “Adrian!” pulp, recovers, gets her back(ish), and then sets up a bunch of traps and whatnot to murderize the baddies, which he does with lots of blood, guts and explosions. So it’s a typical Rambo film transposed onto an American background which does nothing for US/Mexican relations. It’s neither bad or particularly good, but I guess better than the 2008 offering.   

Midway (2019), as the adverts say ‘from the director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow’ (as if that’s going to make you go see it) – his name is Roland Emmerich by the way, might be a remake of the 1976 Charlton Heston film, but I’m not willing to watch the old one to find out. It tells the story of the pivotal battle for Midway island during the Pacific campaign of WWII which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.  

It’s quite a good ‘popcorn’ film actually. Sure, it rather glorifies America’s role in WWII and doesn’t dig too deeply into the Japanese side of the story (but at least it tries a bit), but the effects are generally very good and it’s very much in the spirit of those old war films like A Bridge Too Far, and certainly better than 2001’s Pearl Harbour. 

There’s quite a cast of actors involved and while there’s no Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck or Tom Cruise among them, they do generally cut the mustard. I was particularly impressed by Ed Skrein’s portrayal of heroic pilot Dick Best. I have only really seen Skrein play rather two-dimensional bad guys in films such as Alita: Battle Angel and so it was refreshing to see him step up to be what is essentially the lead character in this rather epic tale.

1917 (2019) is probably the best film listed in this particular post. It is directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and does very well in emulating the ‘one continuous shot’ conceit of Birdman. I spotted about fifteen disguised cuts and I’m sure there were probably more considering the amount of practical effects involved in recreating this small vignette of the Great War, but it is a great way of building tension and putting you right in the firing line.

Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) and George MacKay (who was a new face for me, which helped the suspension of disbelief) play two WWI infantrymen given the task of crossing no man’s land into territory only just recently vacated by the German opposition forces and finding a section of the British army before they enter into a trap and suffer untold casualties.

As I said about Skyfall at the time, the special effects in 1917 are realistic to the point of being overlooked, shadowed as they were by a damn good yarn. This is not an all guns blazing action film like Midway but rather a portrayal of a harrowing journey made by young men against terrible odds to try and stop their fellow soldiers from being killed and it plays out more or less in real time. It’s a great film on a number of counts but it is certainly helped by outstanding performances from Chapman and MacKay.  

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019) is a sequel to the 2014 Disney film with Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning reprising their roles as horny ‘evil’ godmother and stereotypical saccharine Disney princess daughter. I recall being surprisingly impressed by the original film so was happy to watch this on Disney Plus with Siggy. 

The plot is fairly predictable and the aforementioned Ed Skrein pops up again under a load of makeup as an angry birdman intent on getting revenge on the humans. For me, the most enjoyable aspect of the film was the special effects which were eye-poppingly good to the point where I was willing to forgive how derivative the story felt. Was there a slight Avatar aftertaste? You bet there was.

Mulan (1998) is a stylish looking Disney animation which I’ve been meaning to watch for years. It is now available on Disney Plus and has recently been the subject of a live-action remake (the release of which I guess has been delayed by the pandemic) which I am also interested in seeing. It tells the classic tale of Mulan (more properly Ming-Na Wen) a young Chinese woman who joins the Chinese army instead of her decrepit father, despite this being outlawed. She is therefore in disguise (in his armour and with his sword) for a good portion of the film.   

She is accompanied by a diminutive dragon called Mushu (voiced brilliantly by Eddie Murphy) who volunteers to guide her at the behest of the ghosts of Mulan’s elders so he might regain his position among the family guardians. She uses her brain instead of brawn to stop the Huns invading and manages to find romance along the way with a Prince Charming trope in the form of her army captain.

There’s some fun songs, a few stereotypes and some scenes that raised an eyebrow with my ‘modern viewer’ hat on, but overall it’s the type of wholesome entertainment you’ve come to know and love from Disney. It’s worth watching solely for Eddie Murphy’s performance if nothing else. It’s a shame they didn’t go ‘full anime’ on this stylistically, but I guess back in 1998 this would have felt like too much of a departure for the studio.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) is a touching drama with a small amount of black humour directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Pyschopaths).  Frances McDormand (Fargo) quite rightly won the Oscar for ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role’ in her role as a grieving mother who wants justice for her murdered daughter, and Sam Rockwell (Moon) is equally worthy of winning in the ‘Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role’ category. I love pretty much all Sam Rockwell’s work and he is great as an immature police officer with a drink problem and anger management issues.

Woody Harrelson is also good as the local sheriff who goes toe to toe with McDormand’s character when she uses three billboards to try and rile the cops into putting more effort into finding who killed her daughter. If I hadn’t already called out 1917 as the standout movie in this post then this would be my choice. It’s a really good film (which was recently showing on FilmFour) and I don’t want to say anymore than that for fear of stepping into spoiler territory.

In The Blood (2014) is the action film Gina Carano did after Haywire (and Fast & Furious 6) and it feels like it had a much smaller budget. The legendary Danny Trejo has a small part in the film, but most of the action revolves around Carano’s character Ava trying to find out what’s happened to her badly injured newly-wed husband played by buff but cheesy actor man Cam Gigandet (Twilight). What has happened is truly far-fetched, ludicrous you might say, but he’s essentially a walking talking McGuffin who we don’t really have to worry much about while Carano bangs heads and breaks bones.  

There’s not much else to say about the film really. It’s pretty good given the obviously low budget and I do recommend it to any action film fan or Carano fan. I realise that I am turning into as much a Carano fan as Siggy is a Jason Statham fan (I am too, but not as much as her lol). In The Blood is actually far better than the much slicker looking The Courier a film in which Carano wouldn’t have felt out of place. 

The Courier (2019) may as well be called the The Car Park as pretty much all the action takes place in a multi-storey car park somewhere in London. It’s like a Luc Besson action film with only one motorbike and no decent actors beyond Gary Oldman (who hardly has a big part) and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). The trailer below, which contains at least one awful spoiler by the way, makes a big deal about Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding) being in the film, but he’s in it even less than Oldman, so don’t get too excited if you’re a fan.   

The premise of The Courier is quite simple/farcical in that the titular London courier (Kurylenko) is an ex-special forces vigilante crimestopper who unwittingly delivers a lethal device intended to take out the key witness for the trial of the bad guy (Oldman) under house arrest in a swish apartment overlooking Central Park, New York. The device doesn’t have the desired effect and the courier is left trying to protect the witness from a bunch of nondescript bad guys who can’t shoot for shit led by a doofus played by Peter out of the Narnia films (William Moseley). Moseley seems to be trying emulate Oldman’s performance in Besson’s brilliant Leon and failing on pretty much all counts.

Even if you are into the kind of action films popularised by Besson or the work of Jason Statham, you’re better off not wasting your time on this and just watching one of their films instead. The Courier delivers absolutely nothing new and seems to pay more attention to recreating disgusting injury detail than good dialogue, action sequences or indeed story. In some ways I hope there’s a Courier 2, written and directed by someone else, where Kurylenko’s character gets to do something other than run around a car park. I can honestly say that only Kurylenko deserves any kudos for this film.

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