A Kind of Murder

For F*** Magazine

A KIND OF MURDER 

Director : Andy Goddard
Cast : Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, Vincent Kartheiser, Haley Bennett, Eddie Marsan
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 2 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

a-kind-of-murder-posterNovelist Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers, including Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Two Faces of January, have lent themselves well to many masterful adaptations in the past. A Kind of Murder is based on Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer, and is set in 1960s New York. Walter Stackhouse (Wilson) is an architect and aspiring crime novelist, who is unhappily married to his wife Clara (Biel). Walter becomes fascinated with the case of bookstore owner Kimmel (Marsan), who was suspected of killing his wife. Walter finds himself attracted to singer Ellie Briess (Bennett), further feeding his fantasies of killing Clara. Walter earns the suspicion of NYPD Detective Lawrence Corby (Kartheiser) and soon finds his sanity unravelling.

The Blunderer was earlier adapted into the 1963 French film Enough Rope. This new adaptation is directed by Andy Goddard, who has helmed episodes of Downton Abbey, and is written for the screen by Susan Boyd, who optioned the novel with her screenwriter/novelist husband William. A Kind of Murder wears its 60s New York setting as an affectation, and never feels like it authentically takes place in that world. The costumes, automobiles and sets all look convincing and the cinematography is often beautiful, but the film is pervaded with a sense of artifice. Because it’s so mannered and manicured, A Kind of Murder fails to grip the audience and pull them into the mystery. The acting is so stilted across the board that the cast seems like high school students stumbling through an amateur production of Death of a Salesman.

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Walter Stackhouse has the makings of a compelling character: he’s wealthy but unsatisfied with his existence, and his preoccupation with true crime and crime fiction might be driving him to commit murder himself. While Wilson could pass for a leading man in a 60s crime drama, between the stilted delivery and clunky dialogue, Walter becomes a bland cipher who is difficult to care about. The rocky relationship between Walter and Clara is at the heart of the film’s conflict. However, their brief interactions fail to paint a clear picture of why this marriage has deteriorated to the point where Walter would entertain the thought of murder to extricate himself from it.

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Biel’s Clara should be a compelling character in her own right, justifiably jealous when her husband makes eyes at a beguiling younger woman. Instead, we see Clara haranguing Walter and doing little else. Bennett makes for an alluring ‘other woman’, who might be innocent or a devious femme fatale. However, Ellie becomes increasingly extraneous as the story progresses. Walter’s entanglement with the murder suspect Kimmel and the possibly unstable police detective Corby lack the potent mind games a psychological thriller should possess.

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Director Goddard seems intent on capturing the superficial look of a noir thriller, and when we get to men in heavy coats and hats pursuing each other through foggy streets, A Kind of Murder is visually captivating. Unfortunately, the whodunit plot is so mangled in an effort to make things more complicated than they need to be, such that the audience is held at a distance. The film also feels far longer than its 95-minute running time, soporific rather than thrilling.

Summary: A Kind of Murder has a glossy exterior, but fails to deliver the engaging thrills expected of a Patricia Highsmith adaptation.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer
Genre : Action/Western
Run Time : 2 hrs 13 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

the-magnificent-seven-posterDirector Antoine Fuqua is heeding the Village People’s sage advice: “go west”. In this western, the townspeople of Rose Creek are threatened by the avaricious land robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who plans on intimidating them into giving up their settlement. Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband Matthew (Bomer) was killed by Bogue, desperately engages the services of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to take on Bogue. Chisolm assembles a team of men to take on Bogue and his army. They include gambler Joshua Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Chisolm and his team have to get the Rose Creek residents into fighting shape so they can defend their home from Bogue’s forces.

A remake of 1960’s John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven has been in the works for a while, with Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner attached at one point. The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. Working from a screenplay by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto and The Equalizer scribe Richard Wenk, Fuqua strives to create a film that’s true to the spirit of its revered forebears, while also having enough vim and verve to attract todays audiences. The ethnically-diverse cast might seem like a politically correct update, but Fuqua maintains that the reality of the old west was “more modern than the movies have been”, with black cowboys, Asian railroad workers and Native Americans all around. With ethnic minorities still not getting the representation in Hollywood productions that they desire, this is a nice step forward.

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While it is significantly faster in pace than the 1960 film, there are times when this Magnificent Seven drags its hoofs. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. There is the feeling that the film never quite hits its stride, even by the time the protracted climactic battle takes place. That said, it’s still sufficiently entertaining, thanks to the dynamics of the appropriately stellar cast. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has an old-fashioned sweep to it, the Rose Creek set is reasonably authentic and the action scenes are thankfully light on the shaky-cam. The fight choreography can get pretty elaborate, with lots of trick shots and fancy knife-flinging on show.

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For a film that celebrates old-school machismo, there isn’t too much obnoxious posturing to be found. Washington’s subdued authority makes him the ideal team leader, and he does have a similar quality to Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. He cuts a striking figure astride a horse, and projects manliness without resorting to chest-thumping bravado.

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One can tell that Pratt is having the greatest time here, stepping into the Steve McQueen role. He turns the roguish charm up to 11 and is absolutely irresistible as the wily card sharp, in no small part because he’s enjoying himself that much. There are snarky quips aplenty, and Pratt makes them work without coming off as annoyingly glib. Hawke’s Goodnight probably has the most depth out of all the characters. He’s the tormented veteran stricken with PTSD, and Hawke ably conveys that Goodnight is attempting to conceal his trauma beneath a cool veneer. There is some emotional resonance to the buddy pairing of Goodnight and Billy, who are established as being inseparable. While Lee, being the cool cat he is, fits right in with the others, the character still feels like the designated Asian martial arts guy on the team.

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Both Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier don’t have a lot to do, but if this were a boyband, Sensmeier definitely would be ‘the cute one’. D’Onofrio is delightful as Horne, who’s pretty much Chewbacca if he were a human being. He may be able to kill with his bare hands, but he’s still reasonably endearing. Bennett’s character is given a satisfying amount of agency, and is neither extreme of wailing damsel in distress or gun-slinging, rooting-tooting Annie Oakley type.

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The biggest difference between this and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the primary antagonist. While the predecessor had a Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue seems like a deliberate invoking of present-day Wall Street wolves. It’s not a subtle turn by any means and the character’s intimidation factor comes from the fact that he has an army at his disposal, not because he’s actually all that scary. Sarsgaard is an apt choice to play a snivelling, weaselly one-percenter, though we would’ve appreciated it if he could also throw down with the heroes.

This film features the final work of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash two years ago. He had composed the score as a surprise for Fuqua; Simon Franglen wrote the additional music. It’s not a patch on the iconic Elmer Bernstein music from the 1960 version, but it gets the job done. While most film music connoisseurs have grown tired of Horner’s repeated use of the four note ‘danger motif’, which is very present in this score, we have to say we’ll miss hearing it.

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The Magnificent Seven is not the breathlessly entertaining romp we hoped it would be, but it isn’t a shameless desecration of the classics on which it is based either. Its political allegories and inclusive casting justify its existence somewhat, and it manages to be nigh-riotously funny and pretty darn intense at the right moments.

Summary: It’s ungainly at times, but an extremely fun cast make The Magnificent Seven ’16 a decently entertaining diversion, even if it won’t be viewed as a classic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hardcore Henry

For F*** Magazine

HARDCORE HENRY 

Director : Ilya Naishuller
Cast : Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 96 mins
Opens : 14 April 2016
Rating : R21 (Violence and Gore)

“Henry” is a bit of an odd name for an action hero. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a fine name, but perhaps a quaint one – characters like Professors Henry Higgins and Henry Jones Sr. come to mind. The contraction “Hank” just seems much more suited as a moniker for a kicker of ass. Anyway, Henry awakes in a top-secret lab, having been brought back from the dead with cutting-edge robotics technology with no recollection of his former life, and without the ability to speak. Henry’s wife Estelle (Bennett) is there to greet him when he awakens, but Henry soon finds himself pursued by the mercenary army of Akan (Kozlovsky), a dangerous megalomaniac with telekinetic powers. Only Jimmy (Copley), a scientist with knowledge of Akan’s schemes, can help Henry make sense of it all, as Henry finds himself caught in one high-octane skirmish after another.

            Hardcore Henryis built on a nifty gimmick: it’s the first feature-length action film shot entirely from a first-person perspective. Writer-director Ilya Naishuller is the frontman of Russian indie rock band Biting Elbows, and he gained fame by creating music videos that were mini-action extravaganzas all shot from a first-person point of view. In this film, the titular role is played by around 10 cinematographers and stunt performers, including Naishuller himself, wearing a specialized GoPro camera rig. Hardcore Henry is definitely for a niche audience, specifically viewers who find themselves bored with pedestrian action flicks showcasing competently choreographed fights and chases, but nothing too special. Naishuller delivers a product that is (eye)balls to the wall in every sense, the whole thing coming off like a fever dream. Perhaps it’s easiest to compare it to the Jason Statham-starring Crank and Crank 2, Naishuller’s anarchic style of shooting action reminiscent of Neveldine/Taylor’s devil-may-care approach.

            Hardcore Henryis a mess, but not an irredeemable one and, in fact, quite an interesting mess. If the trailer alone made you nauseous, you’ve probably decided not to watch the whole thing. It’s abundantly obvious that those prone to motion sickness should stay away, but the shaky-cam didn’t affect this reviewer as much as he thought it would. On the one hand, it’s challenging to make out most of what’s going on, but on the other hand, it lends the film a visceral vibe and simulates a drug-induced buzz. There are myriad logistical challenges in capturing all the action with just one camera, and if one stunt performer (there are dozens in several scenes) makes one wrong move, it means a retake; you can’t cut to a different angle. Also, the actors have to augment their performances because they’re not interacting with a fellow actor, they’re acting directly to camera – and actors are trained to try to ignore the camera as far as possible.

            Copley is outstanding in this. There’s a puzzling mystery to his character that only gets solved towards the end of the second act, but even though we can’t make complete sense of Jimmy at the outset, Copley’s charisma ensures we keep watching. We won’t give away why, but he gets to play with multiple accents and even performs a full-on dance number. Russian heartthrob Kozlovsky undergoes a complete transformation, sporting a white wig and bleached eyebrows. His Akan is an expectedly over-the-top supervillain and the extent of the character’s power is put on frightening display. Bennett, of Music and Lyrics fame, seems out of place in the film’s setting – but then again it serves the character who’s mostly a damsel in distress, though there’s a smidgen more to Estelle than meets the eye.

            The sheer amount of gleeful violence packed into Hardcore Henry is designed to make the audience wince and laugh simultaneously. It’s graphic, but almost in a cartoony way, akin to the bloodshed on display in the satirical sci-fi action film RoboCop. There’s also gratuitous nudity, with an extended scene set in a brothel. Hardcore Henry doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and there are moments such as when Henry tries to ride a horse with a snippet of the Magnificent Seven theme playing in the background that are genuinely funny. The snarky comment “nobody likes to watch someone else play a videogame” has been used as a criticism against the film and we can see the point there, but there’s just so much energy, conviction and sheer mayhem on display that it’s hard to deny Hardcore Henry entirely.

Summary:It’s messy and incoherent in parts, but Hardcore Henry’s good use of its gimmick, impressive stunt work and how irrepressibly unhinged it is will make this worth checking out for genre aficionados.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars 

Jedd Jong  

The Equalizer

For F*** Magazine

THE EQUALIZER

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Johnny Skortis
Genre : Crime/Thriller
Opens : 25 September 2014
Rating : M18 (Violence and Coarse Language) 
Running time: 132 mins
Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer. Robert McCall (Washington) is a former Special Forces operative who has forged a new, quiet life as an unassuming worker at the Home Mart. During his regular stops at a diner after work, he meets underage prostitute Alina, working under the name “Teri” (Moretz), and is moved by her plight to take on the Russian gangster pimps she is forced to work for. McCall’s actions attract the attention of Spetsnaz-trained Russian Mafia enforcer Nicolai, who goes by “Teddy”. Teddy’s innocuous nickname belies his cold, psychopathic nature. Teddy and his men begin relentlessly pursuing McCall, but little do they know that they’re dealing with a bona fide one man army. 

            The Equalizer is based on the 80s TV show starring Edward Woodward and re-teams Denzel Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. One thing is abundantly clear after watching The Equalizer: Fuqua knows how to make Washington look very cool. Washington’s Robert McCall is a stone-cold badass, collected, unflappable and supremely deadly. This is a guy who sets a stopwatch to time his fights to make sure he’s still got it. The graphically violent efficiency with which he dispatches his opponents stands in contrast with how nurturing a mentor figure he is to his co-workers at the Home Mart. A subplot has him helping the overweight Ralphie (Skortis) get into shape so he can pass the security guard test. This is the same guy who streamlines the Russian Mafia’s payroll with the help of guns, hedge trimmers, barb wire, nail guns, canisters of oxygen in the microwave and of course his own bare hands. All that’s missing from scenes in which Washington performs that “cool guys don’t look at explosions” strut is a choir in the background singing “he’s a badass! He’s a badass!” to the tune of “Gonna Fly Now”.

            Here’s the problem – as assuredly-directed as it all is, one can’t help but feel that The Equalizer’s protagonist is a nigh-invincible superhuman who is never really in any palpable danger from the film’s villains. He’s cool, sure, but he’s far from a unique, memorable action hero. There are no depths for Washington to plumb here, even given how the character is supposed to come off as sage-like in addition to tough. What helps mitigate this somewhat is Marton Csokas’ turn as the villain. The bad guys in this movie are old-school – evil and uncomplicated. Csokas is a charismatic, commanding presence without going overboard with the scenery chewing or affecting too-ridiculous an accent. A scene in which Teddy confronts another prostitute about Teri’s whereabouts is chillingly played. Chloë Moretz isn’t in this as much as the trailers would lead one to believe but her portrayal of shattered innocence and world-weariness is pretty moving, recalling Jodie Foster’s turn in Taxi Driver.


            The Equalizer is stylish and atmospheric, reminding this reviewer of Jack Reacher. Before he strikes, McCall sizes up and analyses each of his opponents, shown in the form of a dramatic Sherlock Holmes-style breakdown. There is very little in the way of shaky-cam and hyper-kinetic editing, allowing the mood and suspense to sink it. The action does get rather grisly, so if you’re squeamish about sharp implements, be forewarned. The Equalizer looks polished but it isn’t sophisticated, and this won’t lead to a Best Actor Oscar for Washington like his earlier collaboration with Fuqua did. But we get Denzel Washington going all lone-wolf guardian avenger in a slightly different mode from in Man on Fire, and we can’t complain about that.


Summary: It’s formulaic, but with action sequences that are equal parts slick and visceral and a cooler-than-cool lead performance from Denzel Washington, The Equalizeroffers up a decent amount of genre thrills.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong