John Malkovich

Ava

10/12/20

Netflix

There seems to be a trend for art-house actors reinventing themselves as kick-ass action heroes. Jessica Chastain, previously best known for floating around in chiffon in films like The Tree of Life, is the titular star of this swaggering punch-em-up, directed by Tate Taylor. Here she plays a professional hit-woman, adept at donning disguises and dispatching powerful men in the most brutal fashion, pausing only to ask them why they think somebody hates them enough to have them offed. It seems she has some Daddy issues, after the callous treatment she received from her own father as a child. Now she’s basically eradicating him over and over again. It’s complicated, but it seems to work.

Ava takes her orders from another Daddy figure, Duke (John Malkovich), her former commander in the army, who seems to be the only person in the world she actually trusts. But, when her unusual approach to killing irks another of Duke’s protégées, Simon (Colin Farrell, sporting a truly horrible haircut), she suddenly finds herself in a very tight corner as her latest mission goes ‘accidentally’ wrong. Seeking a break, she heads home to visit her estranged Mother (Geena Davies), her sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), and her old flame, Michael (Common), who has now hooked up with Judy – which is… awkward, to say the very least.

As she is pursued by former-colleagues-turned-assassins, Ava faces a desperate struggle for survival…

The film is engaging enough in a video-gameish sort of way. There are many extended punch-ups, where Chastain has ample opportunity to display all the martial arts moves she’s clearly trained so hard for. If one or two of the fights feel unnecessarily protracted, well, that’s parr for the genre, I suppose. The emphasis on Ava’s parental issues lends this a little more depth than you’d usually expect to see in a film like this and Chastain has done a pretty thorough job of making her character believable. Farrell, always an actor full of surprises, manages to give Simon as much nuance as he can with his limited screen time, speaking softly and acting violently. It’s interesting to note that he’s an unreliable father, too.

There are the usual inconstancies. How is it, after being beaten within an inch of her life, Ava can arrive somewhere ten minutes later, sporting no more than a modest bruise on her cheek? And… I’ll just put this out there… how can we possibly be expected to believe that Geena Davis is now old enough to play the invalid mum of anybody older than Stuart Little? Can this be right?

The conclusion to this bruising tale suggests that Taylor and his team may be angling for another instalment, but I can’t help feeling that this franchise may have punched-thumped-kicked itself just about as far as it can reasonably expect to go.

Still, if mayhem is your go-to, this one should do the trick.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Deepwater Horizon

deepwater-horizon-movie-reviews

03/10/16

The name is synonymous with one of the worst industrial accidents of all time. In April 2010, the titular drilling rig suffered a catastrophic explosion that spilled millions of tonnes of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing untold damage to the eco-system. The environmental impact was unprecedented – but Peter Berg’s film is much more concerned with the human story behind the disaster. One hundred and twenty six crew members worked aboard the Deepwater Horizon and, sadly, not all of them lived to tell the story.

The events are seen largely from the POV of engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg). We first join him at his home, shortly before he leaves for an eventful three-week shift on the drilling platform and we catch his interplay with his wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson) and his young daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen). Barely ten minutes in, we care about him. And then we’re aboard the rig, watching as he goes about his daily routine, exchanging pleasantries with the other crew members and noting the concerns of safety officer, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), who feels that safety checks are being ignored because the drilling is forty three days behind schedule, something that’s encouraged by BP executive, Vidrine (John Malkovich, playing a character almost as oily as the stuff the crew are drilling for). Of course, history tells us that something went badly wrong and the suspense racks steadily up to the moment when it actually does.

From here on, we’re in disaster movie territory, as all hell breaks loose. It’s a horribly immersive experience and there’s barely time to draw breath as the crew run desperately around the rig, trying to stay alive. Strangely, it’s only after the blitzkrieg of special effects is over that the emotions are hit – there’s a key scene here that had me filling up and it will be a stony individual indeed, who doesn’t feel similarly compelled.

Ultimately, Deepwater Horizon is a tale of heroism – both Williams and Harrell went far beyond what might have been expected of people in such circumstances. It also makes for a thrilling cinematic experience. As the credits roll, we see the real people behind the story, who – surprise, surprise – are nothing like as photogenic as the actors who portray them, but it drives home the fact that this is a true story, where once again corporate greed puts profits above human lives.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney