Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Mission:Impossible - Fallout; "Does anyone fall for this stuff?"

When Henry Cavill looks straight at the camera after an explanation of Mission Impossible’s mask technique and asks “Does anyone fall for this stuff?” I nearly died. That’s twice in a couple of weeks that a main character has stood in for the audience as the going got downright implausible, and I just felt too lucky. Little did I know that this was also a Chekhov moment, and an hour later that question was going to seem kind of ironic.
Mission:Impossible-Fallout is nonsense, as usual, but it’s usually moving fast enough for that not to matter. It’s a film series which has become simultaneously a rebuke and a hostage to CGI superhero movies. The Mission Impossible movies do their stunts for real, and there’s a real weight to Tom Cruise falling off things which are actually there, whether he’s jumping out of an aeroplane for no particular reason or falling down a rope from a helicopter. This is objectively dangerous stuff, and Cruise’s commitment is borderline troubling; he broke his ankle in a pretty routine [1] building to building to building jump and like a trouper and/or a crazy person, he tried running it off as soon as he clambered back on to the roof. They used that shot in the trailer, and the movie. They also had to shut down the production  for two months so that it could actually heal up.
So yup; it’s as real as nonsense can be, and it really does have an impact. But making those stunts pop has brought the movies to the point where they’re just as much as a spectacle delivery machine as the CGI fakery-fests they’re wagging their finger at. Cruise trained for a bonkers length of time to do HALO jumps so that they could really do a stunt where two people are messing up a freefall parachute jump. But why get a military aircraft to impersonate an airliner so that they could do the jump, when there’s hundreds of commercial flights into Paris every day and the Impossible Mission Force can look like anyone they want to?
I’m being a little unfair. Most of the rest of the action makes more sense in context, and some of it is really exhilarating; the helicopter chase as the end is quite something, all the more so because when you see Cruise flying the helicopter, he’s flying the helicopter. He went off and learned how to do that just so that they could have real footage of him flying solo. That’s brave. Nearly as brave as deciding to have a BMW car chase in Paris when this exists. Cruise does not dethrone it.
What’s a bit of a shame about the big spectacle is that the series continues to be quite good at the small stuff. The interaction between the characters rings true, and there’s always something beguiling about Tom Cruise trying to be a decent person in moments of pressure. There’s a solid tense moment as he tries to talk his way out of having to shoot a Paris traffic cop which underlines what a good idea it is to let Cruise just be an ordinary guy, and a lot of what makes the helicopter sequence work is the way in which Cruise is convincingly out of his depth and trying to keep his own morale up.
So that’s my thought if they do another one. Tom’s my age, and it must be starting to get old togging out trying to top the stunts from the last movie. Why not dial back the stunts and try topping the acting?
[1] routine by Tom Cruise standards; insane by most people's

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Incredibles 2

I need to relax, I really do. The Incredibles 2 is a perfectly fun movie that I sat there ruining for myself because I was trying to figure out if there was anything even vaguely approaching a coherent message in the movie about the role of elites in social improvement.

This is not entirely down to my tiresome tendency to go looking for political angles in wholesome family entertainment; the first Incredibles movie was all about the tension between elitism and the needs of the community, and the sequel picks up literally where the first movie left off. So if I was wasting my time trying to figure out what the hell Brad Bird was trying to say about privilege, it’s only because I was trying to understand a conversation he had dragged me into.

A kid’s movie is probably not the place to sort these kinds of questions out. Should special people get special treatment? What do we mean anyway when we use the word special? Do you deserve to be treated differently because of something which just happened to you without you making any effort? How healthy is it for society to think that everything is all about heroes rather than the mass of people trying to make small differences that add up to an overall better world?

Brad Bird doesn’t have much by way of a thought out answer to those questions, but he’s got a lot of fun stunts with cartoons to keep you distracted while he doesn’t answer them. In a strange way, animation is perfect for superhero movies, because it costs exactly the same amount of money to animate the world exploding as it does to animate the wind blowing through someone’s hair, and so the staging isn’t driven by the need to showcase expensive CGI setpieces. It’s all technically difficult, one way or another, so we get what the story needs from moment to moment.

And yet, I’ve only got a rough outline in my mind a week later of what happens. Elastigirl gets to take much more of a lead in this movie than she did in the other, which is nice because a lot of what Elastigirl does is about thinking of flexible solutions to problems where Mr Incredible has basically got two moves; punch and block. It’s nice to see a woman getting the spotlight, but it’s even nicer to see her being allowed to think her way out of problems and demonstrate that there are other ways to be strong and effective. But I don’t really remember much of the action. It was fun while it was happening, but it hasn’t stuck in my mind.

Which is not without its own irony, since the other theme of the movie is the way in which all the victims of the villainy are enslaved by the flicker of video screens which hypnotise them into doing the bidding of the bad guys. Yup, them devil screens, distracting the genpop from what really matters. Weird medium you picked to warn us about that, Brad. I suppose not enough people are reading parchment scrolls these days.

Still, it’s fun while it lasts. The cast are a winning bunch, though I was confused the whole way through that one key character looked just like Alan Cumming and turned out to be played by Bob Odenkirk. That was someone who had to be up to no good, even before you added in the way he was some kind of tech billionaire of uncertain provenance. The one real twist in the movie was when he turned out to be the good guy. This, by the way, is the exact opposite of how these things turn out in real life.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Skyscraper: "This is stupid"

There is a moment in which The Rock has just finished covering his hands and shoes with inside out sticky tape so that he can somehow spiderman his way up the glass outside of a burning building and he looks straight at the camera and says “This is stupid.” To which the audience can only say, as one, “You think?” 

As John pointed out, in a movie full of feats of strength, The Rock’s greatest feat is somehow carrying the whole damn movie. Whenever the camera comes off The Rock, the air just goes out of the room. Clearly, it’s challenging to hire a cast with more natural charisma than Dwayne Johnson, but it takes something - and I really don’t know what - to hunt down a cast with so much less. He’s playing a guy with an artificial leg, and the leg has both more to do, and more charisma, than pretty much everyone else in the movie.

So; to plotting. Skyscraper has the world’s largest building, and it’s got to be a death trap for someone. What will we do? Towering Inferno? Die Hard? I know, why not both? Because if you try to do both, it’s going to be what actually happens in this movie, and please, let’s never do that again. An insane but somehow likeable Chinese megalomaniac billionaire has built the world’s tallest building in Hong Kong. Which was only possible because he paid a load of protection money to the Hong Kong criminal underworld. And then he tracked all the money (seriously, can I please escape from plots which involve money laundering?) back to the crimelords and their secret stashes, and this is - heaven help us - his insurance policy. 

It’s the worst insurance policy in the world, because all these crimelords sic their enforcer on him to get the information back, and he does it by the simple expedient of setting fire to the whole building to see if that sends the owner rushing to find his stash. So, your insurance policy causes your building to burn down. I’ll just let that sit there.

Why does the Rock care about what’s cooking? Well on the one hand, for reasons which beggar understanding, his one-man-in-a-garage security operation got hired to check the fire safety in the world’s most expensive structure. And on the other hand, his shifty ex-FBI friend’s simple plan to keep The Rock’s family out of the building as the plot unfolds goes straightforwardly wrong, stranding Neve Campbell and her utterly non-identical twin moppets right above the fire line (there is no apparent reason why they shouldn’t have been below it, other than to get The Rock all motivated, but eh…).

Now, you, bless you, probably think that a skyscraper called the Pearl is probably made out of ferro-concrete and glass and just possibly actual pearls. There you go with your common sense assumptions, not thinking like a screenwriter. The Pearl is in fact made entirely of Chekhov’s guns, and our introduction to the building thuds through all the features which we just know are going to be key setpieces in the adventure to come. Wind turbines to power the building; The Rock’s totally going to have to jump through those, isn’t he? Huge atrium garden full of empty spaces to fall through; folks are going to dangling over that drop in no time, aren’t they? Big hall of mirrors at the top of the building; we’re going to redo the climax of Lady from Shanghai before we’re done. I just know it. And oh, oh, I know this bit; key character is told that to fix most technical problems you just turn the device off and on again ….

Not one bit gets missed. This is a film whose biggest surprise comes in casting Noah Taylor to look like a treacherous English weasel, and making it so obvious that when he actually turns out to be a treacherous English weasel, it almost feels like a twist because the audience would have been thinking that surely the script couldn’t have been that unimaginative.

And while I know I was waxing lyrical just the other day about the simple pleasures of the 80s, this movie reactivates one facet which should have died thirty years ago; the gang of interchangeable Eurotrash gangsters. Fine if you’re Die Hard and Alan Rickman’s in charge, but not when you’re making a movie with an even mix of Chinese and US money, and you just want the bad guys not to annoy anyone who might be signing a cheque or paying for a movie ticket. Eurotrash make great villains, because they don’t have any particular ethnicity, and taken as a group, Europeans are both mature and educated enough not to take any of that crap seriously. But we are picky enough to ask for Eurotrash with some class to them. If you can’t get Alan Rickman ...

The Rock’s already made more movies this year than most people see in a cinema in a full year, and we all need to pray that this is bad as it gets. In the meantime, we have learned one useful lesson; you can’t build a whole skyscraper with just one rock.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Hotel Artemis; turns out the future is just like the past thought it would be

Jodie Foster’s last day out was Elysium, which is one of those “has it really been that long?” moments. When you see her first appearance, you think maybe it’s been even longer, since she’s aged up about 20 years so that she can play a 70 year old nurse by appointment to the mafia. She’s wonderfully convincing as a spry old lady with bad knees, because she’s Jodie Foster, so of course she is, but I found myself thinking that she’d been sitting on this property since she was in college and just got tired of waiting to be the actual age to play the main role.

Because Hotel Artemis is straight out of the 80s, in the best possible way. Mostly because it’s a simple little movie which does exactly what it came to do in a nice lean, cheap, 90 minutes and then bows out with a coy “We hope you enjoyed your stay and look forward to seeing you again.” But also because it’s got a vision of 2028 that seems straight out of my teens, when it was a given that the world would have gone to hell in a handbasket by the time I was middle-aged. Every American city would be an urban wasteland ruled by an uneasy mixture of criminal warlords and capitalist goon squads taking turns to loot the poor of all the stuff they didn’t have. It would always be dark, and raining, and people would just live off pollution and drugs. Assuming, of course, that the world didn’t go straight to the apocalypse with a full on nuclear exchange which would leave everyone living on dogfood until their faces melted off from mutations.

The apocalypse duly didn’t arrive, and for a while there, Hollywood’s predictions for the year 2028 were looking increasingly dumb. Fortunately for the credibility of 1980s scriptwriters and unfortunately for just about everything else, those visions are starting to look positively perky, and Hotel Artemis sits pretty comfortably with our darkest imaginings of what comes next.

Back in the 1980s, movies weren’t all that good, but they were - for better or worse - whatever the hell they set out to be. They didn’t need to fit into a franchise or please a four quadrant audience, or pass focus groups. You gave the crew some money, and you hoped for the best. You didn’t often get it, but there wasn’t much money on the line and it’s not like any of us had the distractions we have now; even bad movies could find an audience. 

And for a brief 90 minutes, we’re back in those days. Hotel Artemis is a movie about a bad Wednesday night in a shady hotel in the middle of a riot. It’s not really a hotel; it’s a hospital for crooks. Staff two; Jody Foster’s careworn drunken nurse, and Dave Bautista’s gruff medical orderly. Every time I see Bautista in something new, I appreciate how little movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Spectre use his abilities. The guy is not just a huge slab of muscle with a knack for hamming; he can act. At least well enough for something like this, anyhow. And he’s charming; in a movie largely populated by baddies, you’re rooting for Jodie and Dave to make it. And for Sofia Boutella to kill everything she meets. Good news on that front; she does. And it turns out that I was right to hold out for a movie where they would let her talk; she’s not half bad. Not that anyone came for that; we came to see if she could wipe out half of LA in red ball gown. No, not if, how

So Sterling Brown and his sidekicks show up after a bank robbery goes wrong (more thought seems to have gone into the masks than the plan) and before long everything is falling to pieces in Jody Foster’s carefully cloistered world. The Hotel Artemis has rules, and they all get broken by the time the night is done. This would have been enough to be getting on with, but at no extra charge to the audience, we get Jeff Goldblum’s fey crimelord and Zachary Quinto as his useless son and heir. For a woman who hates to multi-task, the Nurse does a pretty good job of keeping all the balls in the air, until they turn into grenades and the pins come out all at once.

And that’s all it’s there to do. Small cast, confined space, everything going wrong in the best possible way. Welcome back 80s. I’ve missed you.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Sicario 2; Soldado. Now with even less Emily Blunt

Sicario ended with Kate Macer completely shoved out of the action, so the only logical place for a sequel to start was with her entirely absent. At that point in the pre-game, someone should have been asking “Wait, what, make a sequel without the thing which made the first movie interesting? Does that seem … wise?” I assume that if anyone did ask that, they just shot him about eleventy million times and carried on with the plan.

The plan was to keep everything else about the first movie and double down on it. Breathtakingly stupid plan to foment trouble in Mexico? Check. Bunch of maniacs telling themselves that you need dirty people to do dirty work? Absolutely. Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro prowling around Mexico with way too much firepower and way too little oversight? You saw the first movie, didn’t you?

Their excuse for making south of the border even more of a mess than it already is could not be more simple. Drug cartels are into people smuggling, people who get smuggled might be terrorists, therefore drug cartels are terrorists, and it’s time to go all Afghanistan on their asses. The trigger for this thinking is three suicide bombers walking into a Walmart and somehow managing to kill only 14 people. I know that there isn’t much by way of performance review for suicide bombers, but if there were, I can imagine their managers trying to explain to them that they really hadn’t reached the exacting standards of their chosen profession. It’s still enough for the US to overreact and pick up the phone for Josh Brolin.

I’ve ranted in the past about the way in which big budget movies seem to run on the basis of working out the action setpieces ahead of time and then demanding that the writers come up with whatever it takes to string those setpieces into a narrative. Coherence is optional. Sicario 2: Soldado is like the small-budget action movie version of this problem; there’s suicide bombers, HALO parachute raids, urban assassinations and kidnappings, rolling ambushes in the middle of nowhere, and nothing which allows any of it to make any sense. “This” someone must have said “Will look great in the trailer.” Reality is this confusing and misconceived, but reality isn’t required to make sense. Perversely, when you make a movie which accurately captures the sheer wilful idiocy of the real world, it just looks stupid, not perceptive.

The puzzle is that the movie is trying to say, and perhaps more importantly what the people behind it thought that the audience was going to hear. Because Josh and Benicio are genuinely awful people, and the government nutbags who think they’re the answer to their problems are genuinely awful stupid people, but if you leave the audience to try to figure that out on their own, you’re going to wind up with a lot of people thinking that Josh and co are right, and that it’s only by being even worse than the people that you’re fighting that you can overcome the evils of the world. Eclipsing the world’s evil with your own is, I suppose, technically beating it, but it’s not exactly solving the problem you said you were worried about.

Why this feels confusing is that Sicario-the-actually-good-movie managed to get this point across, largely thanks to Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer. So it’s baffling that the same writer drops the ball so thoroughly the second time out. And the signs are that they’re planning a third movie. I’d like to say it can only be an improvement, but I think we all know how likely that is.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Ocean's Eight; you'd need an ocean to launder the money

Ocean’s Eleven is not a masterpiece; it’s one of those movies which got a good rap because it managed not to be terrible despite being a remake of a corny heist movie with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Ocean’s Eight is a worked exercise in why that happened. Heist plot? present and correct. Charming cast, working below their potential? Absolutely. Steven Soderbergh? Absent. Ooops.

What nails the point is this movie from last year, when Soderbergh went back to the heist well to tell a simple heist story properly. Robbery in the right place, uncertainty in the right place, and tension all where it should be. He made it all seem effortless, and then along comes this movie to remind us of how much real work it takes to make anything look effortless.

Part of the problem is that Ocean’s Eight isn’t really funny enough. There aren’t that many laugh out loud lines, and the only one I’ve quoted since was “This is a non-stop flight to nowhere with no peanuts.” Finding a context to make that funny took hundreds of bureaucrats crammed into an airless room talking about nothing until it was like that time in the Superman movie when he flew around in circles so fast that time started running backwards. At that moment, when death seemed almost too much to hope for, that line finally seemed funnier than what was going on around me. 

I’m being a little unfair. There’s also a great inspirational speech from Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, as she reminds the gang that they’re not doing this for themselves, or each other, or the money, but because somewhere out there, there’s a little eight year old girl who dreams of being a criminal, and they owe it to her to give her inspiration. But to balance that out, there’s James Corden, so that’s a wash, really.

Mostly, it’s just the pacing. It’s a heist movie, so the plan has to be ingenious, and apparently on the edge of going calamitously wrong until it all turns out to be part of the scheme. Instead the robbery goes off without any real problems, and the follow up scam is somehow too weightless to register. You see, they weren’t really stealing what you thought they were stealing. Psych! Except that what they turned out to be stealing supposedly belonged to some utterly scary Russian oligarchs, and there’s no way that they’re going to take that lying down. Which if course is the way in which they made a sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, and look how that turned out.

Anyhow, they get a shed load of money and live happily ever after, which is when I started going “Huh?”. Because a big part of the plot engine is that Helena Bonham Carter’s character (who inexplicably has an in-and-out Irish accent) is broke and being audited by the IRS, so she needs money. But if you’ve got the IRS all up in your business, how on earth do you get away with producing millions of dollars out of nowhere to pay off your tax debt? The IRS don’t run on my business model. I might just take the money, shrug, and say “A win’s a win, what do I care where it came from?” The IRS are going to want a bit more than that ...

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Claire gets sensible shoes

There were many criticisms of Jurassic World, and I am delighted to report that they dealt with two of them in the sequel. Firstly, Claire finally gets to run around in sensible boots instead of high heels, and secondly, they’ve given up on theme parks. Also, they dropped the mandatory moppet count to one. This kind of thing matters in movies like this, becase by the time you’ve paid for the donuts and the CGI, there’s rarely enough money to pay for writers. If you cut the moppets down to one, you can get just enough writers into the budget to give a single moppet enough personality that you might care whether or not she’s in peril. Not that I actually did, but I almost did.

For the rest, it’s the same problem that I keep grumbling about. There are dinosaurs. They fight, and they eat things. Each other. Bad guys. Unimportant good guys. Goats. Because the Jurassic Park movies are aimed at a PG13 rating, the eating things bit tends to involve a whip pan away from anything icky. Not that I particularly want to see someone being eaten alive by a dinosaur, but it tends to suck a lot of the menace out of having dinosaurs around the place when you never see them do anything. There’s only so much you can do with sound effects. 

The Jurassic movies seem to happen in an alternate reality where Jeremy Clarkson is a strategic thinking guru. The world is dominated by various kinds of billionaires, all of whose planning for anything is Clarkson’s insouciant “What could possibly go wrong?” It ought not to come as much of a surprise that a corporation which thought a dinosaur theme park was a good idea would then put it on an island with a volcano in the middle of it. Luckily for them, the other weaknesses in the plan did for their billion dollar investment before the volcano erupted.

Luckily for the audience, the volcano eruption doesn’t take up too much of the movie; it’s just a framing device to get some of the dinosaurs off the island and into genpop. There is, sadly, still enough time for Chris Pratt to wake up next to oozing lava and have to twitch his way out of its path. Adorably, the movie reckons that as long as something at a thousand degrees doesn’t actually touch you, you won’t have anything to worry about, unlike in the real world, where being less than a foot from lava is a cue for your clothes to catch fire, and then you.

Anyhow, much of the cast escapes from the island, including lots of dinosaurs and Ted Levine’s attempt to imagine what Bob Peck’s character would have been like if he’d been raised in a Skinner box full of rats and scorpions. Ted’s Wheatley is a guilty pleasure in a movie rather short of them. The other guilty pleasure is the slippery Henry Wu, who shows up in all of these movies for a couple of minutes to be the greatest living expert on cloning dinosaurs before vanishing with bags of evidence just before the roof falls in. If the villains had any sense, they’d make Henry the boss. He’s the only sane man on their side.

Then the shadowy corporate goons set out to auction off the dinos to people even more corporate and shadowy than they are, which all goes about as well as every other villainous plan in the Jurassic universe ever has. There is running, and there is screaming, and finally, long after I’d lost interest in the fights, the dinosaurs get out into the wild to set the scene for the inevitable sequel. And in those last few minutes, Fallen Kingdom does the only interesting things it manages to pull off. Firstly, they give the moppet a Sophie’s Choice moment over whether to let the remaining dinos die in a basement, and secondly they set up a problem for the next movie which actually had me thinking, Hmm, I’d like to see how that works out. Which is vexing; the ending is rushed and perfunctory and hasn’t been set up properly by the action (because the action was too busy trying to be action, rather than advancing the plot), and it just left me thinking that if they’d got the balance and pacing right - and had fewer dinosaur fights - they could have had a damn good movie on their hands.

Maybe next time.