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Marvel’s The Defenders

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And so after five seasons of Marvel Netflix superheroic shenanigans, from the highs (Daredevil Season 2, Jessica Jones) to the lows (goddamn Iron Fist), we come to the inevitable culmination: Marvel’s The Defenders, which sees our four street level vigilantes come together to take on – who else? – The Hand, the shadowy organisation of ninjas, zombies, and ninja zombies intent on taking over New York City.

The good news: it’s a damn sight better than the woefully misjudged Iron Fist. For one thing more care has gone into the production of The Defenders – it lacks the rushed, haphazard, undercooked feeling that marred poor Danny Rand’s first TV outing. For another, Danny (Finn Jones) is a much more appealing protagonist when he’s got other characters sharing the spotlight – especially when they’re a blind guy, a woman, and a black man who are all more than happy to tell the rich white kid when to check his privilege when the need arises.

It’s Danny who drives the plot engine, in fact; he and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) have been hunting down The Hand around the world, and it’s their crusade that brings them back to NYC and into the orbits of lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and ex-con Luke Cage (Mike Colter), none of whom really want to get mixed up in any kind of shadowy back alley war. Murdock has given up his Daredevil persona (shades of The Dark Knight Rises there), Jones is content to drink and take the odd PI gig, and Cage is focused on tracking down a Harlem teen who has gone missing after taking a mysterious job (again, shades of DKR). It takes a bit of maneuvering to get them all in the same place and punching in the same direction, but it’s worth the wait.

In the blue corner we have Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, the face of The Hand, pursuing a mysterious but doubtless world-threatening agenda. Weaver’s no stranger to genre fare – she’s Ellen Ripley, for crying out loud – and she’s never less than watchable, but seems a little ill at ease with the often portentous dialogue she has to get her mouth around. She’s also ill-served by the glacial, repetitive way that we’re introduced to her character, a series of brief scenes, isolated from the main story, that are determined to drop veiled hints at a character trait we’ve all guessed long before the show deigns to tell us.

Indeed, pacing remains an issue with The Defenders, even though it runs at a cut down eight episodes rather than the usual Marvel/Netflix 13 episode season. As has been the case with every series so far, there’s simply not enough story to stretch comfortably over the allotted hours. Happily, the character interactions are enough fun to keep you interested – at last we get the Luke Cage/Iron Fist meet-cute/punch up we’ve been waiting for (it’s a thing), and streetwise Jessica Jones telling Matt Murdock his secret identity isn’t much of a secret is never not funny.

We also get cameos from the supporting casts of every preceding series, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson (Cage marveling that Foggy lets people call him that is a riot). However, the key returning players are from Daredevil’s neck of the woods: Elektra (Elodie Yung), now a living weapon wielded by The Hand, and grumpy old ninja master Stick (Scott Glenn), who remains a curmudgeonly delight in every scene he’s in.

The action, when it hits, is pretty great – and certainly an order of magnitude better than Iron Fist‘s disappointing choreography. Part of the fun in these sort of things is seeing how the different characters’ power and abilities compliment or contrast with each other, so we get to see what happens when Iron Fist’s, er, iron fist, meets Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin, and how martial artists match up against opponents with super strength. For all that, the feeling remains that Marvel/Netflix are still chasing – and falling short of – the high watermark that is Daredevil Season 1’s hallway fight, but not for want of trying.

Perhaps inevitably, it lacks the thematic and narrative cohesion that defines the better works in the overall series, but based on the four episodes released for review, The Defenders does exactly what was promised, delivering the requisite action, quips and character interplay, but not quite managing to push into any new territory. Everyone already on board will be well satisfied, and newcomers should find enough to keep them engaged, too.

 
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Logan Lucky

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What if Steven Soderbergh directed The Dukes of Hazzard? That thought exercise doesn’t map precisely onto the brisk, brash crime caper that is Logan Lucky, but it should give you a good idea of the tone of the thing, which sees the eponymous down-on-their-luck Logan siblings plotting to rob the home of NASCAR, North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, during the biggest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600.

So, it’s a heist movie, something Soderbergh knows a thing or two about, having called the shots on Ocean’s 11 through 13, not to mention the classic Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. What sets it apart from his previous endeavours in the field are two things: the setting and the characters. For one thing, this is a flyover state piece of pulp fiction, set in the deep red states of backwoods America, not the coastal metropoles we’re used to seeing on the big screen. For another, our cast are, for the most part, not professional criminals, but down on their luck working class heroes who wouldn’t need a big score if there was any such thing as a steady job in modern America.

Our mastermind is former miner Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), his football career killed by a bad knee, who needs the cash to keep seeing his daughter, who’s in the custody of his estranged wife (Katie Holmes). His brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), tends bar with his one good arm, having lost the left in Iraq. Sister Melly (Riley Keough), works in a downmarket beauty salon. They’re all underachievers, labouring under what Clyde thinks is a family curse – they’re all, as the title says, “Logan lucky”.

Bringing much needed criminal expertise to the exercise is Joe Bang, a safe cracker and explosives expert played by a peroxide-haired, tattooed Daniel Craig, clearly having a blast being free of the 007 yoke and oozing dangerous sexuality and down-home charm. Unfortunately, Bang is himself banged up at the time of the planned robbery, but that’s not much of an obstacle for the Logans, who are considerably more canny than anyone expects them to be.

What proceeds is a nimble, footloose sting on what is, as far as the world of the film is concerned, the beating heart of America – the home of NASCAR. It’s here that Soderbergh tips his hand a bit, briefly unmistakably demonstrating a deep distrust of this element of American culture, with its flag-waving patriotism and militarism, its roaring engines and roaring crowds, its conspicuous consumption and crass commercialism. It’s a case of “hate the sin but love the sinner”, though, as Logan Lucky has ample affection for its cast of hangdog heroes. Imagine a Coen Brothers movie that actually liked its characters – to be fair, there have been a few – and you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, it’s all about the little people sticking it to the Man, but the film is smart enough to know that the Man is often clothed in the things we think we love: NASCAR, energy drinks, fried chicken, Jesus and Coca-Cola. That Soderbergh manages to revel in the spectacle of it all while giving us something to chew on is quite a feat. Those deeper themes never overwhelm the action, though; you’ll find no pontificating on the American condition here. Still, for a fast and funny crime flick, Logan Lucky has plenty of grunt under the hood.

 
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Tristan Barr: Painting the Sunset

Shot in one continuous single take, Watch the Sunset tells the story of a man whose family comes under threat when his violent criminal past finally catches up with him. We caught up with co-star and co-director, Tristan Barr.
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Hampstead

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Feeling a little lost after her late philandering husband leaves her struggling with debt, London-dwelling American Emily Walters (Diane Keaton) is adrift. Her well-meaning son (James Norton) tries to get her to simplify her life, while her coterie of “ladies who lunch”, all residents of the same upmarket Hampstead apartment house, underwrite her crisis, because what’s five thousand pounds between frenemies?

Emily finds her focus when she stumbles across Donald (Brendan Gleeson), a hermit living in a handmade shack on wooded Hampstead Heath. As it eventuates, the land he’s been squatting on is of considerable value and is due for development, and Emily resolves to help the curmudgeonly but wise Donald keep his ramshackle castle. But could the pair ignite a spark in each other they both long thought had winked out?

Well yes, of course you know going in what kind of movie this is, and you’ve got a fair idea that the end result is probably not going to map exactly onto the real life story of Harry Hallowes, which inspired the film (for one thing, there is no Emily). Hampstead is a strong but somewhat bland hybrid between Notting Hill and the gray market Autumn romance of your choice – call it The Best Exotic Tumbledown Squat, if you like.

Which is not to say it’s without charm. Keaton remains as watchable as ever, even if she is just playing a late-life variation of Annie Hall, complete with kooky fashion sense and whimsy. Putting her next to the ursine Gleeson turns out to be an inspired choice, the latter’s broad, rough-hewn charisma pairing nicely with Keaton’s quirkier appeal.

Hampstead is never quite sure what it’s actually about, though. There’s some lip service paid to notions of class division, gentrification, and self-determination, but it’s all a bit woolly – feel-good platitudes rather than anything actually thought through with any degree of clarity of discernment. Still, it’s a pleasantly enjoyable amble up the gentle slope of rising action to a fairly familiar destination.

 
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The Wall

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

In the dying days of the Iraq War, a US Army sniper team consisting of gunman Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter, Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are dispatched to investigate the massacre of a repair crew and their security detail at a remote desert pipeline. There, they are attacked by Juba (Laith Nakli) , a legendary Iraqi sniper. With Matthews badly wounded and lying exposed, Isaac takes cover behind… well, it’s in the title.

This is an interesting little formal exercise from Amazon Studios and director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, American Made), and you can certainly view it as an exploration of the possibility of doing a low-budget film with a known cast that can compete, if not go toe-to-toe, with the blockbuster behemoths that bestride that current theatrical landscape. The Wall is budgeted at US$3m, takes place in one location, and – one sequence aside – has a cast of three, one of whom we never see, and another of whom spends the bulk of the film unconscious.

And it works a treat, due to Taylor-Johnson’s one man show as the wounded but cunning Isaac, and tense, terse direction from Liman, who isn’t afraid to reach into the horror toolbox to find something to tune up his small-scale war movie. Seeing as he’s the only active character for much of the film, our sympathies lock onto Isaac from the get-go, and the script never makes him betray them. Isaac never does anything that shifts him into the “too dumb to live” category. He’s smart, capable, tough (he deals with a leg wound in a wince-worthy but admirably stoic fashion), but he’s pinned down by an unseen assailant, low on rations, stuck under a merciless sun, and almost completely out of options. The fun and tension comes in seeing him use his brain and his limited resources to deal with his situation before either Juba puts a draft through his dome or he simply bleeds out from his wounds.

There are a couple of points that push the envelope in terms of plausibility, mostly in terms of Juba’s almost supernatural accuracy with his rifle, and the film’s final movement feels like we’ve jumped genre tracks entirely, but not enough to break the compact with the audience. This is a tight little thriller custom-made to straddle the line between cinema-worthy and streaming fodder. No matter the context you catch it in, you’ll have a good time.

 
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Luc Besson: Envisioning Valerian

The acclaimed director of The Professional and The Fifth Element explains the philosophy underpinning his latest film, the sci-fi spectacle Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.