Film reviews: Gunpowder Milkshake | Prisoners of the Ghostland | Mandibles | The Story of Looking | The Starling

Starring Karen Gillan as a female assassin taking violent revenge on her former employers, Gunpowder Milkshake could have been great, if only it could have transcended its many obvious influences, writes Alistair Harkness

Karen Gillen and Chloe Coleman in Gunpowder Milkshake

Gunpowder Milkshake (15) **

Prisoners of the Ghostland (15) ***

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Mandibles (15) ****

The Story of Looking (15) ***

The Starling (12A) *

Although the Karen Gillan-fronted female assassin movie Gunpowder Milkshake opens and closes in a vintage American diner that caters to killers, its central setting is a library run by a trio of bad-ass women (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino) who use books as a front for supplying hit-women with firearms. It’s an appropriate setting given how much this derivative action movie borrows from other movies, be they John Woo classics, Luc Besson bangers or, more blatantly, the John Wick franchise, from which it has purloined its hyper-violent fight scenes, its heightened world of international assassins and even the aforementioned library setting (see the opening of John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum).

None of which would matter if the film transcended its influences. Sadly, Gunpowder Milkshake’s Israeli director Navot Papushado seems content to patch together his own version of their coolest scenes in the hope that his cynical, gender-switched take on a male-dominated genre is enough of a hook to see it through. It’s not. As fun as it is seeing Gillan’s Sam going kill-crazy after being betrayed by her patriarchal employers, the film’s token attempt to make us care about her character by putting her in charge of an eight-year-old (Chloe Coleman) and re-connecting with her own estranged assassin mother (played by Lena Headey) just leads to a lot of generic, CGI-assisted action sequences.

Nick Cage & Nick Cassavetes in Pioneers of the Ghostland

The makers of Gunpowder Milkshake could learn a thing or two about choreographing action from Prisoners of the Ghostland, a bizarre, supernatural-themed Nicholas Cage film that also has the distinction of being surprisingly well-made. Credit cult Japanese director Sion Sono for this. Elevating what could have been pure schlock into something more artful, he uses the freedom afforded by the film’s genre-mashing concept to tell its story in a visually rich way, one that blends samurai films, westerns, heist movies, post-apocalyptic sci-fi and fantasy into a heady cocktail that’s always interesting, if not always coherent.

Decked out in an explosive-device-lined leather suit wired to blow his testicles off (yes, really), Cage plays a redemption-seeking bank robber who has been press-ganged into rescuing the granddaughter (Sophie Boutella) of a local tyrant, Escape from New York-style, after she goes missing in the titular Ghostland – a kind of cursed netherworld tied into Japan’s vexed history with nuclear weapons. Needless to say, nobody but Cage could make this work, but his performance only works because Sino knows how to maximise the action to accommodate him, as he does in the film’s stand-out sequence – a virtuoso flashback to a heist gone wrong that Sino shoots largely in Brian Di Palma-esque slow-motion, its vibrant colour schemes accentuating the way the memory haunts not just the dreams of Cage’s character, but those of Boutella’s.

There’s yet more offbeat filmmaking in Mandibles, the latest from cult French director Quentin Dupieux, who follows up the recent Deerskin with a similarly slight, weirdly engaging oddity, this time following a couple of nitwit criminals (Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais) who agree to deliver a mysterious package to a wealthy businessman but coincidentally discover a giant fly hiding in the boot of the car they’ve stolen to do the job. Unperturbed, they decide to train the fly to carry out bank robberies – a ludicrous idea that leads to several slapstick encounters as they secretly begin its criminal education.

Building to a sly punchline, what follows is an absurdist character piece about friendship with a brilliant supporting role for Adèle Exarchopoulos as a woman who can only express herself by shouting.

The Story of Looking

Mark Cousins’ latest film The Story of Looking sees the Edinburgh-based cinephile riffing on his own book exploring visual culture by reflecting on how his way of seeing the world has developed. Giving the film a little dramatic urgency, he structures it around a cataract operation he’s about to undergo, then contrives to spend the day before it ruminating on some of the images, films and works of art that have shaped his life as he both lies in bed and, later on, ventures out into Edinburgh to take in his home city one more time before going under the knife.

Zeroing in on different aspects of looking – focus, colour, light – as well as different stages of our own development, the film uses movies to good effect to illustrate how they can form us as people by encouraging us to see ourselves in them. Elsewhere, Cousins can get a little navel-gaze-y, as in the extended scene of him lying in bed reading his Twitter feed to us. But he’s also an inveterate visual chronicler of the world around him and though his reflections on his own footage sometimes bring to mind the plastic bag scene in American Beauty, his undimmed sense of wonder at what he sees is infectious.

A couple losing a child is the tragic starting point for The Starling, an ill-judged comedy drama from Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi in which a grief-stricken Melissa McCarthy’s battle with a territorial starling becomes a metaphor-generating catalyst for a quirky journey of self-healing. Chris O’Dowd co-stars as McCarthy’s psychologically shattered husband; Kevin Kline is a former therapist-turned-vet whose unconventional ways might just help them find a way back to happiness.

Gunpowder Milkshake is available in cinemas and streaming on Sky Cinema from 17 September; Prisoners of the Ghostland, Mandibles and The Story of Looking are on selected release and digital download from 17 September; The Starling is on selected release from 17 September and streams on Netflix from 24 September

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