Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Widows; with men like this, why would you want to be anything else?

The key insight in Widows is that men are just the worst, though I’m not sure anyone was still on the fence about that one. If you just watched the trailer, you’d think it’s a movie about four women carrying on where their villainous husbands left off. Well, yes, there are women in it, and they’re planning a robbery. But the camera spends a lot of time checking out what the men of the world are up to. The robbery plan is tangled up in political infighting in Chicago, and we spend as much time listening in to the two horrible sides of that fight as we spend with Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez and Elizabeth Debicki and eventually Cynthia Erivo (Cynthia’s on a roll; she was the most surprising thing in Bad Times at the El Royale and she’s holding her own here against her three co-robbers).

And what an awful bunch of men we’ve got. The robbers which made the widows are no great loss to the world when they get themselves shot to pieces and blown up in a botched robbery; their destruction is such a “no-one could walk away from that moment” that as soon as it happened, I started a clock in my head for the moment when at least one of them would turn out to have just done that. Well, a stately jog, as it turns out, but I didn’t let that make me think I was wrong. Then there’s the two sides of the political race; Colin Farrell’s ghastly white sixth generation ward heeler pitted against Brian Tyree Henry’s crime-boss who’s decided politics is the logical next move to a life of criminal ease and unlimited money. Daniel Kaluuya gets to wipe out all the “Awww” he got from Get Out by playing Henry’s brother as such a walking blemish that when he finally gets got, your main reaction will be that it didn’t hurt anything like as much as it should have. Over on the white and privileged side of things, Colin Farrell has an equally ghastly family member in the shape of Robert Duvall’s grisly fifth generation ward heeler, all rage against minorities and disappointment that his son isn’t an entirely shameless monster.

Because, own this; Colin Farrell’s whiny privileged political manipulator - and part time murder plot organiser - is probably the most likeable man in the movie, apart from Viola Davis’ driver. For #MeToo players, check out the queasy undercurrents in Lukas Haas’ character, who rents Elizabeth Debicki for sex when it suits him, and gives an all too convincing performance of a creep who thinks that he’s a nice guy because he doesn’t actually threaten women into giving him sex. I sat there fuming, because in such a uniformly horrible male cast, there was a real risk that there would be people in the audience who’d think that Haas was playing a relatively nice guy. Tragically, he doesn’t get hit by a bus. I like to imagine it happened off screen.

Thank goodness for the women. They’re not written as great people either, but at least they don’t leave a slime trail wherever they go. And they have spirit. I wanted them to win; not just to make it out alive, but to win. And the movie needs that angle to work at all. The robbery takes a matter of minutes. The planning is occasionally fun, but it’s not often tense. So it will work only if you buy the characters and want to see what happens to them. That, above all, is what McQueen gets right in directing the movie. He has a great cast, and you want to know what’s going to happen to them. And even the small victories are glorious in their way. When Debicki goes out to buy guns without a clue, and figures out how to borrow a clue from someone else, you share her glee at carrying it off. Of course, equally when she’s being used by Lukas Haas, your heart’s in your boots as you look for an exit. Somehow, the stakes feel highest for Debicki’s character, and it’s not just because there’s something so frail and ethereal about her; it’s that she’s coming into the game with the least of all the players and has so few options. Every victory counts.

And I can’t tell you if she wins or not; the movie leaves me guessing. In her last scene, she has an absolutely perfect coat, but I’ve no idea how she got it, or where she’s going next. Probably not a sequel; this is not that kind of movie.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Slaughterhouse Rulez

I was under no illusions about Slaughterhouse Rulez; the poster made it clear that the cast was people I’d never heard of, plus Nick Frost and Simon Pegg playing nerds out of their depths, and Michael Sheen playing smug evil, a job he does with the same worrying conviction that Gerard Butler brings to being a scowling murderer. Please, I find myself thinking, let this be really good acting.

I assumed the cast were going to get wiped out to the last man and just hoped that it might try to be funny along the way. I wasn’t too far off the mark. It’s a determinedly cheap movie that mashes If into a monster movie with a side order of a swipe at capitalism in general and fracking in particular. I can sort of see why they went with a monster movie. The swipes at the public school system are funnier and more interesting, but there’s no very obvious place to take that kind of thing narratively, so just as Chandler wrote his way out of dead ends by having a guy walk into the room with a gun, enter the monsters. The writers had made all the points they wanted to about class warfare and cruelty for the sake of cruelty, and there was a certain need for action.

It’s best not to think about the action too much. As usual, the Aristotelian unities are not respected; I defy you to make sense of how the locations are connected or the way in which time passes once things get weird. And as always, the monsters don’t make any sense. They’re big, carnivorous and come from underground. What the hell were they eating underground? How does that ecology even work? And if they’re popping up out of the fracking works, why isn’t the rest of the ecology popping out ahead of them? 

So there you are with a public school full of posh swine being cruel to each other. That kind of thing gets pricy if you want to get it right, so cleverly they put most of the action in a couple of rooms, and then set the main action around a bank holidy when most of the kids and most of the teachers are off the campus having fun somewhere else. So that they can get away with a vast public school with only a dozen speaking kids, a matron, a headmaster and just one teacher. This freed up just enough money for some CGI for the monsters, and you’re away at the races.

Pegg, Frost and Sheen are their usual dependable selves. They’re such good performers that they can make something out of almost anything. Sheen’s fleering headmaster is theatrically unpleasant, but the moment where he delays the getaway from the monsters because he insists on pulling on his driving gloves before even starting the car is a perfect character moment. Of course he’s the kind of clown who has a Skoda AND driving gloves, and even more of course, he’s the kind of person who has to complete all his little rituals no matter what else is going on. Same with Pegg; of course he’s completely inadequate, but in a crunch he’s still trying to do the right thing and be the person he thought he always had in him.

However, the standout performance is Asa Butterfield’s tortured quip machine Willoughby Blake. The ostensible hero of the piece is Finn Cole’s Don Wallace, who’s there as the audience surrogate; bluff decent northerner who doesn’t even want to be there and has to have everything explained to him. But Will is both much more fun and much more of a hero, albeit a very unwilling and frequently downright spiteful one. He provides a mordant running commentary on everything else in the movie, but his perfect moment comes as the survivors are legging it and they realise they’ve left someone behind. “We’ve got to go back for him!” and Will deadpans reflectively “Do we, though?” and keeps right on going.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

A Star Is Born

It’s wrong that one of my takeaways from A Star Is Born was the meanspirited wish that they’d done the blocking for Greg Grunberg so that we never saw his face. Grunberg is a likeable guy, and I think it says a lot that he keeps showing up in movies that his more successful friends from Alias make, but they had a great thing going on early in the movie where you hear him talking, but his face is never in shot. He’s Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)’s driver, and he’s just a voice that Maine isn’t even really listening to as he drives around looking for a bar. He gets into shot just once, when Maine sends him to talk Ally into flying to a concert, and I really wished they’d shot that whole scene from behind him so that we still never see Greg’s big likeable face. That would have been a nice touch. Also, Lady Gaga seems to keep finding a new version of her face in every scene she has as Ally, so the more scenes the merrier, really.

So that’s just me. Back in the mainstream, the high point of the movie is that first duet between Maine and Ally. Bradley Cooper, god bless him, went off and got himself trained to sing and play the guitar properly. I don’t know if Lady Gaga went off to learn to act, or she’s just been doing professionally weird stuff for so long that she had nothing left to learn, but she sure didn’t need to learn how to sing. That short scene gave me goosebumps. I’d read reviews, so I thought I would be a bit immunised. Nope. You can tell yourself you’re ready, but it’s still a hell of a song. 

For the rest, it’s all down to the cast. And Lady Gaga is great. Not just dancing bear great, but genuinely selling the part. It seemed crazy to be talking about Oscars until I saw it, but eh, you know? Why not. There will be better performances this year by women, but I’m not sure that many of them will be as surprising.

It’s otherwise a pretty solid movie; this is the fourth time around the block for the basic plot, and it’s all down to whether you care about the characters and how you’re going to feel about the world going to hell for the older man as the younger woman passes him out. Don’t go for the happy ending, because there isn’t one, but for the way in which we get to the sad ending.

And, I’m sorry to say, don’t go for the music. Everyone’s doing their best, but apart from Shallow, that first duet, the music’s serviceable at best. Which is a bit jarring, when you know what Lady Gaga does musically in her day job; I kept waiting for the madness, and we got another helping of pop. Of course, if they’d leaned right into that, the music might have eclipsed the plot, and then why not just have a Gaga concert movie.

One last thought which I couldn’t escape. Jackson Maine’s a hard living hard drinking soft rock musician, and we’re shown his world of success in which he just shows up dressed however the damn hell he pleases and does what he wants. And then Ally becomes a star in the making, and we watch Maine watching her rehearse for a musical number; he’s looking wistful as we see the shadows of the rehearsals, and it really hit me. If you’re a guy, you just show up. If you’re a girl, you have to have a costume, and backing dancers, and you have to look good. But the tragedy we’re supposed to buy in is the melancholy of a declining career, not the way the world works against half the people in it.


Venom must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but I spent most of it wondering if Tom Hardy genuinely had nothing better to do. I spent most of the rest of it wondering who was playing the female lead, and felt qite grumpy when I realised it was Michelle Williams. I know she had better things to do, because I’ve seen her do them.

So, it’s another superhero story, and there’s an origin story and the fate of the whole world is at stake, and there’s lots of CGI for no very good reason and because there’s lots of CGI everything happens at night to make that easier, and well, why do I ever go to these things any more? Because nothing else that was on that night was any better, and there’s some degree of quality control in Marvel’s world. And Tom Hardy is rarely unwatchable, no matter what else might be going on.

Even so, it’s nothing like a must see movie. And as is so often the case, I found myself unpicking the logistics. Why WOULD there be a comet full of weird lifeforms which could live symbiotically with humans? How would the energy budget for that even work? Comets aren’t enormous, and they spend most of their time in eccentric orbits far from the sun. How would a comet support enough of these things that they could conceivably take over everyone on Earth, which seemed to be the big plan here?

And then there’s the terrestrial technology. I can never understand how miracle stuff just exists in superheroes as if it isn’t even a thing. It’s as if the people who make movies are utterly uninterested in the real world, or don’t know the difference between fact and fiction. The big bad in this movie has a huge biotech company which has somehow made enough money to build a space rocket to go looking for life elsewhere in the solar system. Which would make him some sort of cross between Elon Musk and Craig Venter, if somehow Craig Venter had got cosmically rich. Hmmm. Ok, handwave the biotech. Who knows? Maybe you could commercialise biotech on a heroic scale without there being any visible impact on the day to day lives of the US population, other than the endless stream of homeless people you kidnapped for experiments.

It’s the rocket which intrigues me. It starts the movie crashing, but before it did that, it somehow got out to a comet and then came back to earth. Even if I’m in a good mood and stipulating that the comet was near the earth when all this happened, so that I don’t have to worry about trip time to the Oort cloud, there’s still the energy budget to move a manned vehicle with five or six people on it out of earth orbit and into a matched orbit with a comet. Then come back. Basically, if someone’s figured out how to do that, all in a vehicle smaller than a bus, they’ve also figured out how to solve the world’s day to day energy problems. And there’s no way that happened without the US economy noticing some side effects. At least when Jurassic Park movies clone dinosaurs, there are congressional enquiries about the responsible use of the technology.

Finally, there’s the symbiotes. Which kill all their hosts so long as they’re homeless people without any lines, but get WAY easier to live with once they start pairing up with the big names. Venom piggybacks Tom Hardy like it isn’t even a thing, but when the going gets tough, he can jump onto a dog, and then onto Michelle Williams and they get through it with less fuss than if they’d had a shampoo and set. I know we’re the audience for superhero movies, but show some respect for our intelligence.

And in the end, it’s in the cause of showing us a superhero who’s dark and edgy and might not really be all that nice. Forget about it. Deadpool has been there ahead of you, kissed all the girls, drank all the bourbon and is passed out in a haze on the nice bedlinen.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is one of those movies which is fun while it’s happening and then falls apart when you think about it. Which is a bit disappointing. I will watch most things with either Jon Hamm or Jeff Bridges in them, and I’d really liked The Cabin in the Woods which was Drew Goddard’s last outing. Actually, it’s comparison with Cabin which shows what went wrong; Bad Times isn’t crazy enough to get past its contrivances.

The biggest problem after the fact is that there’s way too much going on. Half a dozen people show up at a hotel which straddles the California/Nevada border, and shenanigans ensue. That’s fine. What’s not so fine is that every single one of them has an ulterior motive for being there, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense that they’d all have arrived the same afternoon. No amount of Jon Hamm and Jeff Bridges being charming can make that work. Hell, no amount of Chris Hemsworth being the world’s funniest, creepiest own-brand Charlie Manson can make that work. 

But while it’s underway, you don’t quite notice. These are good performers playing well. Everyone has something to do, and everyone has at least a few moments which really register. Early on the plot whacks an expensive movie star, just so that you get the message that this is serious business and anyone can die at any time. And not many of the rest of the cast get out alive. 

Along the way they all land their characters, and each of them turns out to be hiding some kind of a secret which turns their introduction upside down. Each of these reversals works on its own; indeed the final one is pretty much heartbreaking. It’s just that there are too many of them happening all at once, and in a movie which has been so painstaking in setting everything up so that the pieces spin against each other, it eventually gets baffling that there’s no clever explanation for how so many people with problems all turn up at the same hotel in the same few hours.

Despite all the good work done by Jeff and Jon, the standouts are Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene and Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, playing the best and the absolutely worst people in the whole movie. Hemsworth, in a way, is more surprising. I didn’t realise he had it in him to play a charismatic bastard, but if there’s any justice in the world, he will spend the next five years doing nothing else. Apart from anything else, anything that lets him boogie while threatening to murder everyone in the room probably deserves some kind of UNESCO world heritage status.

Hunter Killer; Peak Gerard Butler

Gerard Butler is the best thing in Hunter Killer, so you can imagine what everyone else is like. It has two female speaking parts, although it only lurches to two when a previously silent crew person suddenly chips in with about five words ten minutes before the end of the movie. I had a picture in my mind of one of the producers suddenly realising that there was only one female voice in the whole thing, and demanding that someone, anyone, get a line which wasn’t delivered in a macho rumble.

The movie is another one of those Hollywood techno thrillers where one bunch of guys are doing stunts and hurting themselves in the wilderness, while meanwhile there’s intrigue and wickedness in a situation room a millions miles away, featuring actors who ought to be doing something more useful. But who can resist an offer of two week’s work looking menacing from a chair? Not Gary Oldman, that’s for sure.

So, Gary’s minding the home fires, and Gerard is running the titular submarine, and then there’s four guys I’ve never seen before doing a mini remake of Lone Survivor as they try to rescue the Russian premier from an attempted coup. Apparently they originally wanted to shoot all this in Alaska, but Bulgaria was more convenient. On the one hand it doesn’t look remotely like the Arctic circle, and on the other hand it’s not all that far from the location where the Soviet Union almost did have a military coup of sorts. Gorbachev wound up stuck in a dacha on the Black Sea for a couple of days at one point during the great perestroika experiment while the old guard had a wee think about his plans. Whether 1991 was an inspiration for this movie, heaven only knows. It takes a long time for some properties to make it to the screen.

Anyhow, it’s a perfectly professional munging of “special ops against all odds” with “submarine sneaking around the place” and I doubt anyone would have missed it if it had never happened. It passed the time, but not so fast that I didn’t have time to notice all the dumb stuff. The chronology doesn’t make any kind of sense; the movie kicks off with a couple of submarines being sunk, and then the US sends another sub to rescue the survivors. It’s OK, according to the Washington navy guy, because they’ve got one nearby with a crack commander just assigned to it. Cut to “The Lochaber Mountains” in Scotland (Bulgaria again), and Gerard Butler is hunting deer with a bow, as you do. This is your crack commander, and he’s about 2000 kilometers from where he needs to be. I’m not sure how long it takes a nuclear submarine to get from Scotland to the Kola Peninsula, but my best guess is “longer than it takes for everyone is a sunk submarine to die waiting for rescue”. I might not have bothered with that, but they hang a lampshade on it by having Butler’s deputy greet him at the docks by wondering how long it took him to get to Faslane (Scotland) from Plymouth. That’s pretty much typical of the care which has been lavished on every aspect of this movie.

What I did like was a throwaway line as  everything in the movie comes to a head; the US and Russian fleets are heading straight at each other and at any moment they’re going to start shooting if somehow Gerard and the Special Ops guys can’t save the day. To give you a sense of how tense it all is, one of the naval experts in Washington announces that they’re closing “to visual range”. There hasn’t been a fleet action since the end of the second world war, so to some extent no-one knows what a modern naval battle will look like, but one thing everyone agrees on is that waiting until you’re in visual range was out of fashion by 1943. You might think “Eh, only military nerds will care”, but who do you think the audience is for something like this?

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A Simple Favour

I imagine I wasn’t the only person who saw the trailer for A Simple Favour and was fooled by the insistent French pop soundtrack into thinking that it was a remake of a French original. It’s not, thank heavens. It’s comforting proof that America can take a book and adapt it into a perfectly good movie by the simple expedients of keeping the cast small and talented and letting them act.

I’ll be honest; I was on board as soon as I saw Anna Kendrick in the trailer. I don’t know why Anna Kendrick is magic, but she just is. I pretty much didn’t care who else was there, or whether Paul Feig was directing it; I knew that Anna would somehow make her own bit special and that would somehow be enough.

It would have been, but everything else works too. Blake Lively is delightful. Anyone could have torn up the screen delivering bitchy one-liners, but she also manages to make you see the scared person hiding behind the bitch. And there’s other people, but they don’t matter all that much. This is a whole movie about a terrible friendship between two women, and the men are, at best, things that get kicked around the room by the plot.

And what a plot. What makes this a great little movie is not that there are two fun female characters owning the show; it’s that for once you also want to see what happens next. This is not just a hang out movie with two mismatched buddies. This is a mystery movie where you can’t tell who the villain might be. Emily has everything that Stephanie could possibly want; magnificent house, dreamy husband, a killer wardrobe [1] and approximately all the attitude in the world (Emily’s voicemail message is a magnificent “This is Emily Townsend. Leave a message or fuck off.”). Emily disappears, and within a matter of days, Stephanie has moved into the magnificent house and the dreamy husband’s arms, and ...

Was Stephanie planning this all along? She’s such a repressed dorky little thing that it feels like it would be a perfect reverse for her to have targeted Emily and moved in on her world. And Anna Kendrick shows these little moments of fire and determination to get her own way. Maybe she’s the real predator in this world.

Or maybe not. Go see the thing yourself and find out. What makes it a good movie is how hard it is to guess which way it’s going to pan out. And when it does resolve, the resolution makes sense. It’s true to what we’ve seen of these people. The movie’s very honest about the way you can’t trust people; again and again the characters tell each other stories while the action cuts away to what actually happened, just to underline how hard it is to catch a lie in a voice even when you’re being shown a lie.

And there are so many incidental pleasures, including a wonderful Greek chorus of bored parents from the school where Emily and Stephanie meet. They’re all too believably fed up with both of them, and they’re used just enough that you’re always pleased to hear from them. 

Perfection’s in the details. In its own way, A Simple Favour is perfect.

[1] None of it is ever going to fit Stephanie, who’s a mouse beside Emily’s jungle cat, but still ….