The rise of the action woman

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Alicia Vikander, one where she talked about her role as the new Lara Croft and how the character has been rebooted as a more realistic heroine for modern women.

She mentioned how it seems there’s momentum these days, indeed appetite, towards high quality, well put together, action-driven films that feature a female lead. She mentioned Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and others, which got me thinking, is there momentum? Was there a specific moment that was the turning point?

Thinking back, Angelina Jolie has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since about 2000, with Charlize Theron playing her part too. But did they pave the way for the films we see now or has this been a longer time coming?

For me, I think the ’90s are a good place to start.
So below are the films and the various time periods that, for better or worse, I consider to have had a hand in where we are now. I’ve listed the actress, character, film, year, whether they were lead, co-lead or in a prominent supporting role, and the Rotten Tomatoes score, to give a rough indication of how the film was recieved by audiences.


THE 1990s

Yes we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien at the tail end of the ’70s, but the ’80s were dripping in macho testosterone. So, for me, the ’90s is where this movement started to gain traction, with actresses like Linda Hamilton and Geena Davis leading the way, putting in decent performances in exciting, entertaining movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) 92%
Sarah Connor (supporting) – Linda Hamilton

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) 68%
Samantha Caine (lead) – Geena Davis

G.I. Jane (1997) 55%
Jordan O’Neil (lead) – Demi Moore

The Matrix (1999) 87%
Trinity (supporting) – Carrie-Anne Moss

THE 2000s

The good work the ’90s women put in gets somewhat undone at the start of this decade, with a bunch of terrible films (Eon Flux the biggest offender) and, whilst it’s no fault of the various actresses involved, it took a one-two punch of Angelina Jolie (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to set things right. So by the end of the decade we were getting better films – and characters – with greater frequency (Hanna, Salt).

Then, by 2012, we’d probably reached a turning point. Angelina Jolie (aged 35 in Salt) couldn’t fly the flag forever, so others had to step up. Enter women like Jennifer Lawrence (22 in Hunger Games) and Saoirse Ronan (17 in Hanna), actresses that appealed and inspired a younger generation and helped push things further forward.

Charlie’s Angels (2000) 68%
Natalie Cook (co-lead) – Cameron Diaz, Dylan Sanders (co-lead) – Drew Barrymore, Alex Munday (co-lead) – Lucy Lui

Tomb Raider (2001) 20%
Lara Croft (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Resident Evil (2002) 34%
Alice (lead) – Milla Jovovich

Eon Flux (2005) 9%
Eon Flux (lead) – Charlize Theron

Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) 59%
Jane Smith (co-lead) – Angelina Jolie

Kill Bill (2003) 85%
Beatrix Kiddo (lead) – Uma Thurman

Wanted (2008) 71%
Fox (supporting) – Angelina Jolie

Salt (2010) 62%
Evelyn Salt (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Iron Man 2 (2010) 73%
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (supporting) – Scarlet Johansson

Hanna (2011) 71%
Hanna (lead) – Saoirse Ronan

Hunger Games (2012) 84%
Katniss Everdeen (lead) – Jennifer Lawrence

2015 ONWARDS

In 2012 Disney acquired Star Wars as a property and set about making plans to expand the franchise with new films and characters, ones that would appeal to a modern audience. The majority of moviegoers want to see female characters better represented on screen, so franchises like Star Wars really need to lead the way.

Additionally, along with Marvel’s MCU and a smattering of female superheroes, even DC studios got in on the act, with a female-led action movie in Wonder Woman (something Marvel could only really match with supporting characters in films like Black Panther). Momentum and quality, though, had really shifted. If the below selection are anything to go by.

Mad Max (2015) 97%
Furiosa (supporting) – Charlize Theron

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) 93%
Isla Faust (supporting) – Rebecca Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 93%
Rey (co-lead) – Daisy Ridley

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (2016) 85%
Jyn Erso (lead) – Felicity Jones

Wonder Woman (2017) 92%
Diana Prince (lead) – Gal Gadot

Atomic Blonde (2017) 77%
Lorraine Broughton – Charlize Theron

Black Panther (2018) 97%
Shuri (supporting) – Letitia Wright and Okoye (supporting) – Danai Garira

Top 10 elevator scenes in movies

Is your screenplay complete without a good elevator scene? Probably not. As a director can you forgive yourself for not including one? No.

So there’s the argument, an open-and-shut case. Any film worth its salt has an elevator scene, so here are a few I’ve picked out I rather like.

What would make your list?

Drive
Oddly tender yet completely brutal, here Ryan Gosling’s character gently holds Carey Mulligan’s character back before he viciously stomps a guy to death.
The Untouchables
In a touching scene Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone find the mob got the drop on a member of their team in the elevator.
A Cabin In The Woods
Guards with guns race to face whatever comes out the lifts. And what emerges is holy hell – an explosion of monsters, blood and death.
The Departed
Showing no respect for big name actors – and in a genuinely shocking moment – a key character gets shot as soon as the lift doors open.
Terminator 2
The T-1000 chases Arnie and the gang into a lift as they flee the mental asylum. In such close quarters with a killer who has swords for arms it’s frighteningly tense.
Lost In Translation
Murray and Johansson’s characters say goodnight exchanging kisses. Wonderfully played. Murray also has another lift scene, standing a foot taller than the locals.
The Losers
Chris Evans’ character gets into a lift whilst singing Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing with gusto. Needless to say, no one gets in with him.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire
In a rare lighter moment, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason strips off in a lift in front of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch. Some are more pleased than others.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Steve Rodgers starts in the lift with a few guys. A door opens, more get on. Then more. He asks if any want out before they get started. He then gets started.
Inception
Ellen Page’s Ariadne descends in an elevator, sneaking into Cobb’s memories to find Marion Cotillard’s Mal, gorgeous and deadly.

Spy: McCarthy prods buttock

After lengthy success in TV (Gilmore Girls, Mike & Molly), Melissa McCarthy finally broke through to film in 2011’s Bridesmaids, almost stealing the whole thing from the rest of the cast. In 2013 she received critical and commercial acclaim for The Heat with Sandra Bullock and, last year, starred opposite Bill Murray in quirky comedy St. Vincent.

So she’s been building to a big project and here with Paul Feig’s Spy we have the result. McCarthy leads the show but is ably supported by a great cast (all having a ball) which includes Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, Miranda Hart and Jude Law.

McCarthy plays desk-bound CIA analyst Susan Cooper, who gets thrown into the field to foil a plot by evil baddie Rayna Boyanov (a bitchy Rose Bryne) to sell a nuclear weapon. From the off we see Susan on a headset advising charismatic agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law on fine, narcissistic form) as he dispatches bad guys with time to check his hair. Bond eat your heart out.

spy-1-gallery-image

Once the Americans learn Rayna is behind a plot to steal a nuke, CIA head Elaine (a pragmatic, spiky Allison Janney) realises none of their current agents can get near her as they’ll be recognised, so up steps Susan, sent off to a series of European locations on a mission to ‘track and report’ only. This disgusts loose cannon agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who ends up butting heads with her throughout the movie in a series of hilarious encounters (who knew Statham was this funny?).

As a writer-director Paul Feig has formed a stellar partnership with Melissa McCarthy; they’ve now done three films together (Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy) and she knows exactly how to make his material sing, comedically speaking. And in the world of funnies she’s really carved her own niche. Lazy critics might say McCarthy is the female Will Ferrell or, given Bridesmaids‘ common DNA with The Hangover, the female Zach Galifiniakis. Why she has to be the female equivalent of a male actor is beyond me, but that’s Hollywood and the media I guess, still a man’s world to the core.

spy-4-gallery-image

Back to Spy, the plot is relatively simple and merely a device for McCarthy to show Susan’s progression from timid analyst to kick ass spy, which she does convincingly. She’s surrounded by quite a lot of British talent too, from fellow analyst, ditzy Nancy (Miranda Hart) to lecherous ‘Italian’ Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz having the time of his life). So it’s an odd mix in a way, but it works well.

Spy has its tongue in its cheek the entire time and there’s barely a quiet moment to reflect on whether all the jokes are landing or not (most of them do). But none of this matters as you won’t be assessing it during (a sure sign the comedy is flagging); you’ll be with Susan on her journey in all its sweary glory. In the year of spy films coming out (The Man from UNCLE, Bond’s SPECTRE) it remains to be seen whether audiences will tire of this genre by the end of the year. If they don’t, there’s a high chance we’ll see a Spy 2 greenlit, so watch this space.

Fast & Furious 7 review

Like the cast, the Fast & Furious franchise has had its ups and downs over the years, but it has survived and since Fast Five it has thrived and really found its feet. The trailers are a great example. For 5, 6 and this latest instalment they give away almost all the best bits yet you still want to go see the film.

There’s a sort of warped magic in that.

This latest offering has a tenderness running throughout (if you look hard enough) because one of its leads, Paul Walker, died during filming, in a car crash no less (although he wasn’t the driver).

jason-statham

Continuing the story where the gang rough up a chap from London (Luke Evans) in the last one, this tale more or less starts with his angry brother Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) vowing revenge. And so we have a new nemesis for Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) to deal with. He tries to do it alone, as is his way, but soon needs help, which comes in the form of an enigmatic and shady U.S. Government operative (Kurt Russell, great to see him back).

Beyond the setup you pretty much know what you’re getting; girls in fast cars, strong and silent guys in and out of fast cars (mostly Vin Diesel), girls in bikinis, guns, explosions, fist fights, more girls. You get the idea. These films are everything the Expendables franchise wishes it was but can’t quite manage to be.

still-of-vin-diesel-and-michelle-rodriguez-in-fast-&-furious-7-(2015)

Key to their appeal isn’t just the eye candy, if it was it would have sunk long ago. It’s the notion of family. Led by Toretto this theme echoes throughout. Whatever the crew do, they look out for each other, they’re a tight unit and they really care. It’s tragically brought into focus by the fact that, in the real world, you get the sense they were too, making the loss of Paul Walker all the more hard to take. In that respect the filmmakers do a commendable job in the film’s final minutes, giving him a touching, well handled and thoroughly heartfelt send-off.

But before you think this film may no longer be that fast or that furious given the things I’ve mentioned, there’s no need to worry. Each instalment dials it up another notch and it’s no different here. Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is back and, whilst he doesn’t have that many scenes, he has some cracking, almost Arnie level lines and moments. Statham brings a great sense of menace and new threat for Toretto to deal with, to the point where one of their fight scenes on a rooftop car park wouldn’t feel out of place in a superhero movie.

still-of-nathalie-emmanuel-in-fast-&-furious-7-(2015)-large-picture

There’s also a nice addition in the form of ace hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel aka Missandei of Game of Thrones) to slightly balance out the testosterone levels, but not by much as she spends most of her time being rescued or chased.

So, as far as popcorn movies go, you can’t go too far wrong. It almost feels like the perfect time to end the franchise, not that they will given the money it makes, but it seems right to do so.

And on that note, one final thought. RIP Paul Walker, you will be missed.

paul-tyrese

Trailer park: monster, soldier, secret service

Time for a quick look ahead at the trailers of some films coming up. If you’re unfamiliar, I do these little ‘trailer park’ blogs from time to time of upcoming films that I’d like to see.

kingsman firth

For this one, I’m focusing on one out now and two out soon: a gritty historical action tale, an alternative type of sci-fi and a tongue-in-cheek action flick.

’71 (out now)
Out in cinemas now, this tale is set in Northern Ireland and follows a young British soldier (Jack O’Connell) after he becomes separated from his unit during a riot. His performance has already impressed the critics and this looks like one to see before its cinema run ends.


Monsters: Dark Continent
(UK release 28 October)
The follow up to Gareth Edwards’ 2010 original – this time directed by up-and-coming chap Tom Green – sees a soldier searching for his comrade in the desert. This looks to follow the nuanced and stylish aesthetic of the original and build on it in a promising way.


Kingsman: The Secret Service
(UK release 12 Feb, US release 13 Feb)
Has director Matthew Vaughn been in the wilderness for the last few years? Perhaps he has, however this looks like him back to his best in this action spy flick, based on a Mark Millar graphic novel and starring Colin Firth as you’ve never seen him before.

The Guest: introducing the English Ryan Gosling

The latest Downton Abbey export to head to Hollywood is Dan Stevens. I don’t watch the show, but I hear his character is a nice guy who’s good at seducing the ladies.

dan

Now actors often like to break the mould when it comes to roles – to avoid being typecast and all that. So if people think you’re a nice guy, what do you do? Turn it on its head, subvert people’s expectations of you.

And so we have The Guest, a film which starts with Stevens’ soldier, David, introducing himself to a grieving mother, saying he served with her son in the army. Naturally she invites him in, keen to learn more. After all, he’s such a nice young man. He called her ma’am for a start.

maika

The Guest is an interesting sort of thriller, and a lot of it is down to Stevens’ performance. You need someone who can be warm and likeable then, in an instant, be utterly frightening in a stone-cold psycho way. In that respect Stevens does well.

It helps having piercing blue eyes of course (a must if you’re going to make it as a leading man in Hollywood), and he uses them to his advantage. He’s got good screen presence too and conveys a convincing sense of coiled menace – the sort you might expect a special forces soldier to have.

THE GUEST

So… If you have a scary guest in your house you’ll need someone to question why the hell he’s there (particularly when the rest of the family think he’s lovely). Step forward suspicious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, looking and acting considerably more grown up since last year’s Labor Day).

Another interesting point to note with this film is that it keeps you guessing. You’re never entirely sure of David’s motives – at least for the first half of the movie – and he switches effortlessly between nice guy and bad guy. Part Jason Bourne, part Ryan Gosling a la Crazy Stupid Love.

?????????

The final act has teen slasher franchise Scream written all over it – or perhaps other references, given the ’80s-tinged soundtrack (there’s shades of Drive, Hanna and Alice In Wonderland in this film with the lurid, neon colours and fairytale horror feel). However it carries it off with panache and a loving nod to the time of year with the Halloween setting.

So if you’re looking for an engaging thriller with a few scares, a cool soundtrack and England’s answer to Ryan Gosling, look no further than The Guest. Incidentally, a good date movie too.

Is Darren Aranofsky modern cinema’s Noah?

noah1There’s no denying Darren Aranofsky is a unique filmmaker. Prior to Noah his most accessible work (if you can call it that) was probably The Wrestler followed by Black Swan, the latter which – let’s face it – had many moments of ‘out there’ insanity.

Audiences expecting more of the former kind of storytelling will probably come away rather surprised, as his latest offering has more in common with latter or, more accurately, the spaced out, ethereal offering that was The Fountain.

Obviously we all know the story of Noah already right? World in ruin due to the wickedness of man; Noah (Russell Crowe) has a vision to build an ark to start again and the animals come in two by two, he saves them. Hurrah. What we don’t know is exactly how we’re going to be shown this tale. Rather than harp on about religion, Aranofsky smartly keeps the focus on creation, nature and the planet. God is frequently referred to as ‘the creator’ throughout.noah emma

Noah is helped in his quest by wife (Jennifer Connelly), sons (Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter (Emma Watson). To keep things tense we have the world of men trying to take the ark for themselves, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the descendant of Cain.

Funnily enough I heard this film be described as ‘Gladiator at sea with animals’, which is laughable, wildly inaccurate and rather lazy. It’s a hard film to describe but one thing it ain’t, is a mainstream action movie. This is a uniquely independent filmmaker playing on a big stage and doing things his way. It just happens to have Crowe as the lead to lend a bit of gravitas to Noah, as he did with Maximus in the arena all those years ago (Ok, in 2000).

From the director’s point of view he’s outdone himself I’d say. Aranofsky’s ark and the scenes where the birds and beasts board the vessel are wonderfully depicted. As are his flashbacks and visions Noah receives from the creator;Noah-2014-Weekend-Box-Office-We-Live-Film and Noah’s story of how the creator made the world in seven days. Part fairytale fantasy, part fever dream, part documentary (I heard the story of creation scene be aptly described by one critic as a sped up MTV music video).

And then we have Russell Crowe. Not always known for giving it everything he’s got but here puts in a commanding performance as Noah, particularly in the final third when he becomes conflicted by what he must do to complete his task. Some credit should surely go to Aranofsky for getting this performance out of him. But then, if you think of his past leads: Mickey Rourke, Natalie Portman, Hugh Jackman – the first two won numerous awards (Rourke, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nod; Portman an Oscar, a Golden Globe and many more) and Jackman put himself through the wringer for the The Fountain. So you’d expect Crowe to deliver.

Noah-Movie-2014-Emma-WatsonAs for the rest of the cast, they all play their parts well: Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife really helped ground Noah – particularly at times when he became unlikeable and you’re left in two minds about whether you should be on his side. Emma Watson had some great scenes and held her own against more established actors in the scenes she had (no doubt Harry Potter set her up nicely for this); Logan Lerman (united again with Watson after The Perks of Being a Wallflower) convinced in the few scenes he had, as a young man left conflicted by the path his father has taken and becomes increasingly swayed by the dark side.

Which leads us on to Ray Winstone who was surprisingly convincing as Tubal-cain, a man hell-bent on claiming the ark for himself. He’d just about managed to dial back his ‘natural’ accent to the point where his presence in the film wasn’t jarring – and he had the suitable mettle in terms of screen presence to face off against Crowe’s Noah. noah tub(Part of me wanted to hear him cry ‘Will I have a climactic battle sequence with Noah where I emerge victorious? Place yer bets, naaw!’ Sadly it wasn’t to be.)

Ultimately, this is the sort of film that means many different things to many different people. Whether you view it through a religious, environmental, societal or moral lens, or simply watch it as a fantasy action movie – it’s going to leave you with things to ponder and discuss long after you’ve left the cinema. It takes a bold filmmaker to take this sort of project on and it’s encouraging that Aranofsky got the go-ahead from the studio to realise his vision (he’s been working on this film since the end of Black Swan).

Perhaps, at least in terms of cinema, he’s our modern day Noah?

300: Rise of an Empire – Green brings the pain!

300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUMIs it fair to say that Zack Snyder’s film 300 in 2007 was, stylistically, a breath of fresh air? All sculpted six packs and slow-mo violence. It also introduced many of us to Gerard Butler as we’ve never seen him before. However the story by Frank Miller, whilst great in graphic novel form, came across as fairly light in terms of character on screen. Lacking depth was bandied about as a phrase by some critics.

Yet Butler gave a degree of depth to the proud Spartan King Leonidas – to the point that we cared what happened to him and his brave 300. And whilst the film was lambasted for oodles of style over a smattering of substance, it developed a cult following over time. But it was what it was: an unashamed guilty pleasure. A Friday night popcorn movie. Yet… it stuck around. Word spread. A sequel was inevitable.

This time round the story takes place a little before, during and after the events of the first film. It tackles another battle between the Greeks and Persians by focusing on the plight of a different set of Greeks, led by the Butler-esque Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton).300-rise-of-an-empire-official-trailer-2014-hd And, to avoid treading the same action beats, the setting has moved largely from land to sea, with both sides pitting their mighty navy against one another.

We also have a new antagonist in the form of Greek-turned-surrogate-Persian Artemisia (Eva Green); right-hand warrior to the Persian God-King Xerxes. Whilst there’s some other bits of plot to consider, this film isn’t really about story or character, it’s about spectacle. The relatively inexperienced Israeli director Noam Murro helms this one (with Snyder co-producing) and the result is pure concentrated Synder (more Sucker Punch less Watchmen).

So what we get is a series of set battles at sea, where Themistocles and Artemisia face off against each other. Aussie actor Stapleton is solid as the stoic leader of the plucky Greeks but, ultimately, in terms of pure entertainment, we’re here to see Green’s unhinged warrior Artemisia chew up the scenery, which she does in spectacular femme fatale fashion. R2_V10B17_80213_CO3_PULLS_01rl_0017.tiffA perfect fit for the worlds which Frank Miller creates. (We’ll be seeing her again later this year in Miller’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For as the eponymous dame.)

Some have said this sequel offers little in terms of depth of character and that the conveyor belt of battle sequences can seem numbing. I agree in part, but we all know what we’ve signed up for; an unashamed, gory, highly stylised and violent action flick – with some tough female characters to boot. (Not just Green but Lena Headey too.)

As I said earlier, it is what it is.

But it’s not just style. There is story and character to be found if you look, some of it quite compelling. It just tends to take a back seat in favour of macho posturing and fight sequences (of which there are some impressive ones). The quieter moments, as a result, carry weight. Yet they are few and far between. Ones to savour.

Another factor which surprised me was the deft use of 3D. As a sceptic I’m the first to say it adds nothing to the experience, yet here it lent itself well to this sort of tale: all limbs, blood, swords, arrows and spears flying everywhere. Murro wanted us immersed in this ‘bucket ‘o’ blood’ nightmare and, with 3D, he achieved that.

All in all, a decent follow up to the original, with a seductive and deadly standout turn by Green that confirms her status as modern cinema’s de facto femme fatale. Roll on the next 300 film…

The Raid – Uwais, Evans and kick-ass silat!

iko the raidHow does one go about creating a kick-ass action film these days that makes you sit up and take notice? Take a Welsh Director (Gareth Evans), an Indonesian martial art (silat), throw in a breakout action star (Iko Uwais), then set it in a grimy tower block. Action perfection all the way!

The plot is fairly light. Rookie cop Rama (Uwais) is part of a SWAT team sent in to clean up a drug baron’s tower block. Little does the team know the block is prepared for unwanted visitors, letting them move further inside the building before emphatically closing the trap.

Bring the pain
This film follows most standard action movies. Usual dialogue is observed, ‘We have a situation’, ‘We got company’ etc. What sets it apart are two things: Pencak silat – a super-fast Indonesian martial art that uses knees, fists, elbows, the scenery – anything to hand. Fantastically suited to taking out bad guys in tight corridors.

The other defining factor is Gareth Evans. An up-and-coming Welsh Director with an MA in Scriptwriting. Amazingly, Evans discovered Iko Uwais working as a deliveryman for a phone company. Talk about diamond in the rough.

iko2 the raidKeeping it gritty
Evans does a brilliant job in terms of directing action. Never hiding the fight scenes with clever editing, we get to see every body blow, every killer move. You may say we’ve seen this sort of thing before – and maybe we have – but not in this way. The fights are fast, intense and uncompromising, all of them.

As soon as the bullets run out, the action really comes into its own. Rama squaring off against five guys in a tight corridor is one of the first stand-out scenes. You know the fall-out is going to be brutal. The ultimate fight scene involves Rama and his brother facing off against the drug lord’s number one henchman, Mad Dog. It’s a long final scene, but a mesmerising one.

Script vs action
Considering Evans has scriptwriting qualifications, you’d hope for fresher dialogue. Although it’s understandable he had to scale back production to get it off the ground.

Either way, it’s a fantastic film. A little predictable in terms of dialogue, but utterly engaging on the action front. So heat up the popcorn, crack open some drinks on a Friday night and enjoy!