Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I am not a fan of the Millennium Trilogy, largely because it has two characters who - for completely different reasons - infuriate me. So what was I doing at the movie adaptation of the fourth, gun-for-hire, Lisbeth Salander novel?

Claire Foy, that’s why. I was prepared to give it a shot for Claire Foy, another of the new generation of performers who just hypnotise me; Foy, Kiernan Shipka, Millie Bobby Brown, the one and only Chloe Grace Moretz. There’s something in the way they look at a camera which makes me want to look back. Plus, the trailer had some cool stuff in it. Death by airbag. Motorbikes on ice floes. Hand-of-god sniper fire.

Well, it’s all there. Except Claire Foy, who appears to have been given very simple direction. “Claire” the director said “You’re the only native English speaker in the cast. Don’t upstage the Swedes. They’re doing their best.” Claire duly dials everything way down. Way, way down. The poor old Swedes are not blasted off the screen. Heaven help them. I’m not saying they took Lagercrantz’s novel and ran the dialogue through Google translate to get the script, but I’m going to need proof that they didn’tAt one level, fair enough for Claire Foy. She’s playing someone with either autism or some kind of emotional development disorder, depending on exactly what you choose to believe Lisbeth Salander’s damage is. This was always going to be a role with not much talking and even less emoting. That just left the poor old Swedes having to explain the plot using whatever they’re given by the scriptwriter. God help them.

And yet it’s a surprisingly OK movie. The plot is straight up stupid hacker McGuffin nonsense like I thought they’d stopped making any more, but it hangs together and stuff happens in a logical sequence. If you want to believe that it’s possible to write a programme that can control the world’s nuclear missiles remotely and that it will fit into 2528 bytes of code, this is your movie. If you think we need a female James Bond, this could be right up your street; whoever did the title sequence seems to have thought this was a Bond movie, and Lisbeth Salander still has that screw anything, hurt anything, break anything, do anything, unstoppable by anything, balagan that Bond movies run on.

In that sense, nothing has changed. Salander can do whatever the plot needs her to do, and Blomkvist is still every woman’s dream date. Heaven help us, they held back two or three minutes of run time just to hammer home that his editor Erika is still splitting hr time between her husband and Blomkvist, easily my least favourite bit of the first three books. If none of that took the enamel off your molars ten years ago, you’re going to lean right in on this movie and eat it all up.

And stuff can kind of work, if you’re ready to suspend all disbelief. One of the best setpieces in the movie is Salander running down the guys what have kidnapped the moppet who lies at the heart of all the McGuffinage. She’s just been injected with god only knows what after losing a fistfight hard. She walks it off by grinding up and snorting random drugs that fell out of the bathroom cabinet, then staggers out in the open air, kicks a dead cop out of an unmarked Volvo, and chases down the BMW getaway car, dividing her time between driving the car, shaking off the drugs, programming the in car navigation system to track her target and using her smartphone to hack the BMW so that she can trigger the airbags and run it off the road that way. At sixty miles an hour. On drugs. It’s ridiculous, but Foy kind of sells it. It’s a pretty cool chase scene. It’s just - well read that description back.

Salander is not like the other children, is what I’m saying. So not like them that it’s best to think of it all happening by magic. Which is cool and all, but it does take the suspense out of things. No matter how battered she might get in the moment, she’s still going to overcome all opposition by laser guided planning, improbabl computer skills and concentrated essence of bad ass.

And Claire Foy is genuinely good enough to sell the idea, at least some of the time. Weirdly a lot of it is in the walk. She’s absolutely tiny, and she walks like she just washed out of ballet school, but something in that stride conveys absolute determination. Pity no-one else is keeping up with her.

 

Friday, 23 November 2018

Overlord; where zombies dare

Overlord is very like itself, in that something which ought to have been dead years ago has lurched to life because people are meddling with things they don’t understand. This is not something which ought to work, and yet, rather crazily it does. Mostly, it’s because it’s not messing around. The Allied characters are walking cliches but the actors lean right into it and make them work. The Nazis have no redeeming features, which jars in today’s world of antiheroes and shades of grey, and then you think to yourself; hang on, these are actual Nazis doing hideous experiments on innocent people. By this stage, anyone with a higher impulse would have shot himself out of sheer embarassment. 

And yes, you’re going to sit there in the early going thinking things like “Hang on, there weren’t any racially integrated units in the 1944 US Army.” or “How would an aircraft be flying in daylight over the Allied invasion fleet ahead of doing a night paradrop?” Snap out of it. We’re about to watch Nazi zombies. If ever there was a time to remind yourself it’s just a movie, this is it.

And yes, you’re going to be reminded that this is a job where JJ Abrams had an input. The McGuffin involves red goop, just as damn near everything in JJ Abrams' world seems to do. What are you going to do? JJ gonna JJ.

The important question is, does it work? Well, the projector threw a rod at my showing, which pretty much wrecked the last act; we kept seeing bits of the ending out of sequence as the projectionist gamely wrestled with the software and tried to get things back on the rails. But that didn’t ruin anything which went before, and I’d say if you got a straight run at it, it would just be simple fun from one end to the other. Shane Black could do a lot worse than take a look at Overlord and see how you can throw together a “motley crew of military screw-ups take on monsters” movie. The paratroop platoon gets cut down to a manageable number of stereotypes in jig time until there’s just four soldiers struggling to figure out how they’re going to blow up a radio jamming station before the sun comes up. 

It’s not gonna be easy, and that’s before they realise that the radio jamming station’s on top of a hell-mouth and they’ve got to deal with Nazis and Nazi zombies just to get to the station. Good thing they’ve got luck, a plucky French villager and a corporal who’s killed half of Italy to tell them what to do. Corporal Ford’s the best thing in the movie, 100 proof cool from the moment he tells the platoon photographer to get out of his face til the moment that he throws the head Nazi’s SS cigarette lighter back in his face. Everyone else on the Allied side is likeable, but Ford is the size the movie really needs.

So, there you go. Things can still surprise you. I wouldn’t have said you could make a cross between Where Eagles Dare and Frankenstein as anything other than a spoof, but Overlord showed me that you can drag those things out of the 1970s and play them straight, and it will still work. Just keep it simple, hire a cast that respects the tone, and get on with it.

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

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.