What might have been a fascinating feminist riff on Shane turns out to be a boring relationship drama, while Idris Elba shows he is a star who deserves a big budget action franchise
Already notorious for visionary Scottish director Lynne Ramsay walking off the project just as shooting was about to commence, it’s impossible to look at Jane Got a Gun (**) and not wonder what might have been. A female-centric western starring Natalie Portman as a mother forced to take up arms to defend both her home and her husband, the premise offers plenty of scope for an intriguing revisionist spin on the genre. Judging from the film Warrior director Gavin O’Connor has subsequently made, however, Ramsay (who is starting to make Terrence Malick look prolific) may well have dodged a bullet: this is pretty dreary stuff.
Although Calamity Jane Got a Gun might have been a more accurate title for the troubled production (which also resulted in Michael Fassbender and Jude Law dropping out), the film itself just isn’t very engaging, in part because Portman is so frustratingly passive for much of it. This is despite a strong opening that sees Jane backed into a corner by her husband (Noah Emmerich), who returns home one day shot-to-pieces and bearing the terrible news that the notorious Bishop Boys are coming to get them.
What’s a capable frontiers woman who’s a crack-shot with a rifle to do? According to this film, the answer is deposit her young child at a neighbouring farm and find a nice, strong, taciturn man to help protect herself and her husband. This she does in the form of Joel Edgerton and it’s at this point the film shifts from a feminist riff on Shane or Unforgiven to a boring relationship drama hamstrung by a flash-backing structure that seems more interested in sketching out Portman and Edgerton’s easily guessable history than dramatising the threat at hand. Given this threat is personified by a reliably awful Ewan McGregor, though, perhaps there’s good reason for not dwelling on it. He plays the leader of the aforementioned Bishop Boys and with his dyed-black hair, made-for-twirling moustache, and that’ll-do American accent, he’s about as menacing as a child playing dress-up.
McGregor pops up again in Miles Ahead (**), Don Cheadle’s impressionistic film about jazz hero Miles Davis. The film deserves some credit for rigorously avoiding the biopic route with a concept that attempts to visualise the wild, chaotic and extemporaneous nature of Davis’s music. But the made-up thriller plot Cheadle devises to do this – involving the increasingly frenetic attempts of Davis (Cheadle) to retrieve some stolen session tapes – hits too many bum notes, in a large part thanks to McGregor, who is somewhat unconvincing as a Scottish journalist attempting to blag his way into writing a profile piece on Davis’s comeback for Rolling Stone magazine. Admirable idea. Sketchy execution.
Still, it’s not as sketchy as Bastille Day (**), a trashy action film about a massive terrorist attack on Paris that has been somewhat overtaken by current events. Tasteless as that sounds, the film is interesting in as much as it marks streaming service Amazon Prime’s first major foray into feature film production, something rivals Netflix dipped their toe into last year with the acclaimed Idris Elba-starring Beasts of No Nation. Coincidentally, Amazon has tapped Elba to star in Bastille Day, but there the similarity ends. More London Has Fallen or Taken 2 than Bourne or Bond, the film casts Elba as a maverick, rule-breaking CIA agent charged with bringing in a con-artist who inadvertently embroils himself in a terrorist plot after stealing a bag containing a set-to-detonate bomb. It’s a bit of a Euro-pudding, its plot twists borrowed mostly from the Die Hard films, but Elba almost makes it worth seeing. He’s got plenty of charisma, attacks some of the terrible dialogue with his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, and is a bruising and muscular screen presence, towering over many of his co-stars. If someone would only give him a good commercial blockbuster franchise, he’d make it fly.
Actually, Elba is pretty good in The Jungle Book (***), Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of the 1967 Disney animated classic, itself adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s short story collection of the same name. He voices the villainous tiger Shere Khan and he complements the meticulous CGI beautifully, infusing the fire-scarred feline with just the right level of fearsomeness to make man-cub Mowgli’s journey convincingly perilous and scary (in a family friendly way of course). The rest of the cast is spot on too, particularly Scarlett Johansson as the seductive snake Kaa, Bill Murray as the laid-back bear Baloo and – in the film’s most inspired choice – Christopher Walken as King Louis, the original King of the Swingers. Favreau makes room for that song and Bear Necessities, and there are some nice comedic touches too, even if over-familiarity with the basic story means it doesn’t always feel like the most vital piece of filmmaking.
Finally this week, Louder Than Bombs (***) is the English-language debut for up-and-coming Danish filmmaker Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo, August 31st). A family drama about the strange way grief can manifest itself, it stars Gabriel Byrne as a former actor contemplating how best to confront the truth about the death of his acclaimed photographer wife (Isabelle Huppert), whose suicidal tendencies he’s kept from sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and the still-at-school Conrad (Devin Druid). Though that plot requires a bit of suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part, the way the film explores the distorting effect of memory is nicely done and Eisenberg, riffing once again on his innate unlikeability, makes his character’s curious behaviour strangely compelling.