Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Wind River: Men are the worst

Wind River is a movie I went to on the strength of the writer. It was Taylor Sheridan’s first chance to direct one of his own scripts, and I’d been impressed by both Sicario and Hell or High Water. The buzz I was seeing in reviews was that Sheridan wasn’t ready to direct, but what I took away was that he’s more or less OK at that, but that I’m getting tired of his writing. Specifically, I’m getting tired of his men.

Lets recap briefly. Sicario is a pretty good movie about the way that men are toxic and use violence to make things worse while pushing women off to the margins. Hell or High Water is a pretty need modern western about how bank robbers are still jerks no matter how much you think banks are the worst, and yep, it runs on the engine that men are toxic and violent.

Which is why Wind River really started to hack me off after a while, despite a solid cast. Jeremy Renner is almost scarily good at playing toxic men, but in Wind River he’s practically set up as the only person in the movie who’s got his act together. He really doesn’t, but the pacing and the staging would make a lot of people think, sure it’s fine to be toxic as long as you’re reflective and in touch with your emotions. The person I found truly admirable was Gil Birmingham’s world weary reservation police chief, whose “This thing is practically solving itself.” was true to both his character and the agressive simple-mindedness of the plot. There’s no complex murder mystery here; the obvious suspects are the bad guys, and the only mystery is how the hell they thought that they were going to get away with it.

The reality is that they had one pretty good reason to think they were going to get away with it; they were white guys on an Indian reservation and they killed an Indian. Reservations don’t have the resources to police themselves properly, and the US government rules on what the tribal police can and can’t investigate when outsiders come onto the reservation mean that there’s practical impunity for outsiders in the empty spaces Indians have been herded into. All this ugliness is hinted at in the script and the playing, but I don’t know that hinting is enough. 

Two other things bothered me even more. One is that once again Sheridan’s given us a plot in which a woman is trying to do her best to make the right thing happen, and gets sidelined by men. Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent is brave and committed, but in the end she’s overwhelmed by events and has to be rescued by a manly man. Up until then, she was a fascinating mess in some ways. I thought she was an idiot to go into an unknown building with a violent clown in it who’d just half-blinded her with pepper spray so that she couldn’t even see where she was going, but I admired her commitment to putting him down, particularly the bit about how you keep shooting at the hostile until you can’t hear any shots coming back. But all her efforts come to nothing; at the climax of the movie, she tries to keep the peace and it still turns into a massacre.

Which leads into a puzzle; by the time Jeremy Renner’s schwacked the last of the bad guys, there’s no-one left alive to explain what the hell happened, but the whole cast carries on as though they’ve seen the flashback the audience gets. That’s just lazy. I think we’re supposed to understand that Jeremy Renner, magical hunter, has figured it all out by reading tracks and everyone just takes his word for it.

Which leads me to the thing which bothered me most. Sheridan’s exercised, and rightly, by the way that Native Americans are being treated right now in the USA. Which makes it grate that the hero of the hour is Jeremy Renner’s white guy who married into the tribe. And is practically a magical Indian with his tracking skills and stoicism and discount Patrick Swayze aphorisms. Men are terrible. White men are particularly terrible. They treat women and minorities like dirt. Fine. That’s all true. But if it really bothers you, then stop treating them like Homer Simpson treats beer. You can’t call them the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Not if you want the victims to believe they can stand up and face them down.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

American Made: something we haven't seen before

I find Tom Cruise confusing, since he does his most interesting work when he plays assholes, but I don’t know if he thinks he’s acting in those moments. And it’s not like he picks movies specifically so that he can be an asshole in them, with the possible exception of the deliberate cartoon in Tropic Thunder which I’ve always assumed was some kind of in-joke payback against a producer he knew and hated. For all I know, Tom thought he was the hero in Edge of Tomorrow, when by far his best contribution to the movie was being a weasel.

Something similar is in play in American Made, a movie where Tom Cruise plays a superficially charming man who flies guns and drugs for the CIA, the contras and the Medellin cartel. This is not a job where anyone with even a sketchy understanding of right and wrong could possibly think he’s the hero, yet the whole thing’s set up to make Barry Seal a breezy, fun guy to be with, just trying to scrape by as he makes millions ferrying death in all directions for people who’ve killed more people than ebola.

At some level, you know that this is nonsense, even before you take some time after the movie to read up on the real Barry Seal, who seems to have been a much bigger jerk than the movie version. For example, he didn’t walk off the job with TWA because he was bored, but because they fired him after he got arrested on the edges of a conspiracy to smuggle explosives to anti-Castro Cubans. Sure, everyone’s got a story to tell in their own minds about how they’re nice guys really, and if they weren’t doing it someone else would be, but that only works for them, because they need it to work for them if they’re going to be able to live with themselves. It’s not going to work for anyone watching from the outside.

And a truthful movie could have been made about that contradiction, with Cruise being a perfectly credible weasel; he can do weasels. But Cruise’s Seal is a likeable schmuck. He muddles through almost everything except flying. Half the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the rest of the time he does it anyway and gets it wrong. And it’s fun; he’s an engaging enough person, and it rings true that he grins and blusters his way out of scrape after scrape.

Right up until he doesn’t. There’s a moment about half way through the movie when you see something which we’ve never seen in a Cruise movie before; a missing tooth. That perfect, not-quite-symmetrical, grin gets a gap put into it. For ten minutes, there’s a little black space there as Cruise struggles with everything falling apart; then everything magically starts coming back together again for him, and somewhere off screen he gets to the dentist, and it’s back to shucking and jiving for another hour and a bit, and then the chickens REALLY come home to roost.

And Tom gets shot. Dead. This is not quite as novel as his teeth not being absolutely perfect, but usually Tom can walk off being shot dead. I’ve lost count of his moments of resurrection at this stage. This time, Tom stays resolutely dead. Which pretty much comes out of nowhere. We never see the cartel or the contras at their business; all the deaths [1] have been airbrushed out of the wacky action, making it easy for us to pretend that this is all harmless. Then boom. 

At the time my main thought was “Well, that was mood whiplash.” Happy clappy fun movie about drug smuggling, and then downer ending as our narrator gets killed. Did not see that coming. But there’s a weirder angle to it when I brood on it a bit. We’re given just one death that really matters, and it’s the star. And it’s carefully choreographed to be a martyrdom, almost an act of nobility. Tom knows he’s a marked man and that he could run, but if he did, the cartel would go after his family. So he sends them off, far away, and stakes himself out there to take the consequences of his life of crime. 

Which leaves me retrospectively annoyed with the whole exercise. We’re rooting for, and then supposed to be sorry for, a guy who was smart enough to know that every load he carried was going to kill dozens of people. The US government is set up to look sleazy and inept, and all the deadly consequences of the idiocy are airbrushed out of the narrative so as not to complicate our reaction to that one numbing kill at the end. It’s a perfect modern American movie that way.

And one small story telling quibble; for no particularly good reason, they hire Jesse Plemmons to play a small town sheriff who completely misses the whole conspiracy which has practically engulfed his county. And then when every federal agency EVAR shows up to arrest Barry Seal, the director missed the chance either to include the sheriff as one more law man screaming “nobody move” in all directions, or cut away to him sitting in his office wondering why all the police are suddenly in town. I hope there’s a deleted scene of that somewhere.


[1] OK, all but one. The cartel whack Seal’s worthless brother in law with a carbomb, but it’s been set up in such a way that you pretty much wish they’d done it twice.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Atomic Blonde: John Chick

As I may have said earlier, I was really hoping to like Atomic Blonde. The trailer is all highlights and cool fights, and Charlize Theron was the motor that made the last Mad Max movie hum. Surely, I said to myself, the woman behind Furiosa could carry a spy movie over the line?

Not so much, which is all the weirder when I read that she spent the last five years kicking people so that someone would make an adaptation of a comic book she liked. Somewhere along the line did she not think about how to make it a movie about people rather than just a daisy chain of stunts? or at least try to make sure that she hadn’t green-lit for director half the mind behind John Wick?

Well, who’s to know. It went the way it went, which is stunt heavy. There are a lot of fight scenes, and at one level they’re impressive as hell. Lorraine Broughton is just whup-ass in heels, a non-stop beat-em-up machine who can take a kicking and stand up afterwards to hand out something even worse. And the movie tries to put a sense of consequence into it by piling on the bruises and damage she builds up as the fights keep going. I can see the plan, but if you want the audience to care what happens to a character, make her a character, don’t give her an ever growing collection of contusions. 

The problem for the movie in trying to make Lorraine a character is that the plot requires her to be a cipher. It’s Berlin in 1989. Everyone’s motivation is suspect, no-one is what they seem, anybody can be a double agent and not even know it. So we can’t know what Lorraine is really thinking. Nothing we see is the real person - or at least we can never be sure that anything we’re seeing is the real person. This is a perfectly good angle for a narrative, but it’s a real problem when the movie badly needs us to care about someone. Most dumb movies bridge the gap by making someone funny, whether it’s a wisecracking hero or a glib villain (or both - Die Hard runs on that engine). Atomic Blonde doesn’t exactly think that wisecracks are beneath it, but it’s not well enough written to make them funny.

Which all boils down to something which doesn’t quite work. Even something technically impressive somehow fails to register; Lorraine gets into a running fight up and down an apartment building which is edited to look like a continuous take, but which somehow hangs together so badly that I couldn’t even get caught up in the frenzy of the action. This, I remind you, is half the team that made John Wick, which nailed the whole diea of extended action scenes so well I forgot to breathe in places. Something did not go the way everyone had a right to expect that it would.

Which is a shame. There’s a perfectly good movie to be made about the world of spying in late 80s Berlin. More than one got made at the time, if it comes to that. And a good double agent movie can really sing. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy worked just fine as more than just a nostalgia piece. And things like John Wick have shown that you can make a perfectly good movie out of a series of setpiece fights; choreography for its own sake can work. And Atomic Blonde looks good all the way through. Charlize looks great, and Berlin looks just right from moment to moment, even if they probably did most of the East Berlin backstreets with bits of Budapest. 

And on the subject of setpiece fights, the running conceit in Atomic Blonde is that Lorraine doesn’t need a gun; she improvises from whatever she can find; a bunch of keys, a hosepipe, pots and pans … Even when she actually gets her hand on a gun, it’s dismantled and she winds up having to use it as a club. That’s a great idea. The late great Adam Hall ran a twenty book series off the back of it, starting with The Berlin Memorandum (as chance would have it). Quiller was a great creation, and Adam Hall would have enjoyed the fights in Atomic Blonde for their brutal simplicity. Quite why they didn’t work in practice, I still don’t know.

But I think, in the end, that it fails because it couldn’t give the characters room to act. Charlize couldn’t. James McAvoy, who completely can act, was directed to chew every carpet he could find. Sophia Boutella, who has died in every movie I’ve seen her in at least finally gets some lines, though not enough to let me figure out if she can really act, or just looks so exotic that it doesn’t matter if she can. The one person who seemed to me to hit the proper tone was John Goodman, who only has a few minutes of screen time, but brings exactly the feeling of worldweary ambiguity everyone else should have had.

Mind you, there’s always an avoidable niggle. Early on, Lorraine is briefed on how a colleague got whacked in Berlin. Shot in the head, she’s told. And they dug a 7.62 mm bullet out of the body they dragged out of the River Spree. Clunk the slide projector to a picture of a cartridge case. The thing which would have been left behind on the road where he was shot before his body was dropped from a great height into a river. Yeah.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Valerian. And the City of a Thousand Planets. And so on.

If this is the movie which winds up bankrupting Luc Besson, and it could well be, it will be the money version of dying doing something you loved. It’s as comprehensively and insanely a Besson movie as it possibly could be, without being a movie as good as Besson is capable of making on a good day. It looks amazing, and it treats the whole concept of making sense as an afterthought. And yet ...

Let’s start with Cara Delavingne, who’s been singled out for wrecking things by not being able to act (one review suggested that she can, but that Besson told her to play her character as a malfunctioning robot). I don’t know if she can act, but her air of unfazed indifference to the lunacy going on around her made perfect sense to me. I found her a lot easier to buy than Dane DeHaan, who appears to have prepared for his part by getting Eddie Redmayne drunk and asking him how he managed Jupiter Ascending. Allegedly DeHaan can act, so either he decided not to, or flat out couldn’t see how to do it when everything around him was green screen and tennis balls, or he read the script and figured that no amount of acting was going to get this over the line into a believable performance.

I am forced to conclude that the problem was the script. Since just about everything in the movie is CGI stacked on top of more CGI, they were going to have fake everything no matter what they did. And so they didn’t have to make the usual compromises with the writing where the director realises that he can’t get the picture in his head onto film. This is the 21st century and Besson is throwing all the money in the world at his personal vision. It looks the way he wanted it to look, and it’s the story he wanted to tell. That’s the problem. The story doesn’t really hang together. For all I know it’s a completely faithful adaptation of the underlying comic book text, and Besson’s only mistake was loving the source material too much.

But whatever the reason, Valerian is a mess. It’s a great-looking mess, but it’s a mess all the same. The puzzle is that The Fifth Element was also a mess, and yet somehow it worked. There’s a thesis to be written on that. I suspect that in part it was that The Fifth Element was made at a time when CGI wouldn’t quite let you do whatever you wanted, so that Besson had to keep pausing and reworking the script so that it could somehow be delivered with practical effects, whereas Valerian was made at a time where movies have become almost like novels or comic books, in that there’s no real difference in the cost of imagination no matter how far fetched the imagination becomes. Once upon a time a cast of thousands required a cast of actual thousands, and a single line in a novel or picture in a comic book could become a logistical nightmare to get on screen. Now there’s not much of a cost difference between a fake background of a distant forest and a fake background of a million soldiers, so why not have the soldiers?

Or it could have been the actors. Usually it’s a good thing that Clive Owen is not Gary Oldman, but there are moments when Oldman’s lunacy is required, especially when you’re Luc Besson and you need a villain who can declaim at the top of his voice while simultaenously chewing all the carpets in the universe. Owen can’t pull that off. And DeHaan can’t manage to be Bruce Willis, much as Cara Delavingne doesn’t have whatever it is that Milla has. And what’s that off to the side? Has yet another effects heavy lunatic movie found a way to waste Elizbeth Debicki? Yup. Bonus points for hiding her so much that I didn’t realise she was there until the credits.

The HItman's Bodyguard; Unaccountably, not a Luc Besson movie

I will take a punt on almost anything which either Ryan Reynolds or Samuel L Jackson is in, so I was never going to skip a movie with both of them, even where I suspected that they both knew all they had to do was show up and coast along on their charm. As it worked out, I had my expectations dialled to the correct setting; Reynolds and Jackson both did their thing, putting about the same amount of effort into it that Dean Martin used to put into his movies, and it’s a perfectly unremarkable thriller which would probably have been totally dreadful without the star power it got.

What’s almost surprising about it is that it’s not a EuropaCorp movie, since everything about it from its mismatched buddies on a chase through Europe, through its casual xenophobia, its blithe indifference to geopolitics, its offbrand locations and even the typeface for the opening credits screamed Luc Besson passing a buddy another of his patented barmats. Of course EuropaCorps would never have sprung for both Reynolds and Jackson. Money is tight and why use two stars when you can probably get away with just one?

Well, you have to use two stars, kind of, if you’re doing a bad remake of Midnight Run. Which as every reviewer has pointed out, is pretty much what the The Hitman’s Bodyguard boils down to. Of course, the fun in Midnight Run was watching Charles Grodin, a non-star, effortlessly upstage de Niro. The fun isn’t the action; I’ve watched Midnight Run a half a dozen times and I couldn’t tell you what happens in the action scenes, or even be confident that there are any action scenes. The fun’s the interaction scenes. Which ought to be great news if you’re trying to make a movie on the cheap, since two guys arguing in a car is very inexpensive. No-one got that memo, and instead The Hitman’s Bodyguard has loads of action scenes. To give you an idea of how they work in practice, I spent most of them wondering whether they were shot in the correct city, or on the backstreets of someplace cheap like Bulgaria. If I’ve got time to think “I’ve been in the Hague, and it looks nothing like this.” the action scene is not exciting enough to be worth the money it cost.

So it’s fun, kinda. It passes the time. I didn’t expect much from it, and I got about what I expected. Next week I’ll go and see Atomic Blonde and if it doesn’t work like the trailer, I’ll be completely disappointed, even if it winds up being better than The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Because life isn’t fair.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick is so straightforwardly good that it’s hard for the snark-o-matic which we specialise in to get any real traction. It had me with the trailer, where Ray Romano’s character says “Yeah, I thought I could just start talking and something smart would come out.” This should be a footnote to just about every conversation I’ve ever had. It all just works. Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t have to act, since he’s playing himself, and everyone else is propping him up, since they actually can act. Zoe Kazan is adorable without being ridiculous or a manic pixie dream girl. And so on. It’s that rare movie which I’ve seen twice and got something different from on each showing. The first time, I was just laughing, but the second time around, whether it was me or the movie, I was picking up on a lot more of the emotion on display.

There are great funny moments, including the world’s most awkward conversation about 9/11, but if it was just a collection of funny lines, it wouldn’t be much of a movie. It works because you want the people to be happy. The closing scene just nails it. Maybe it’s a little bit too Hollywood after what’s gone before, but it still works for me. 

The one question in my mind is whether it’s a better movie if you don’t know what’s going to happen. It would take a mighty effort not to know, since it’s based on a true story and the trailer leads with the big twist; the only way they could be more upfront about Emily going into a coma would be if they used Morrissey as backing music. Thing is, knowing that Emily is going into a coma, I spent the whole front half of the movie wondering if this was going to be the moment, or this, or this … When was the coma shoe going to drop? It was almost a relief when it did. Whereas if I’d somehow managed to go in blind, would the coma have been a dreadful shock? Right up until then there’s no real foreshadowing, and it just looks like a simple minded romantic comedy. Then, wham, coma. 

In reality I don’t know how you could make it as big a shock for the audience as it must have been for the people it actually happened to. You can make it matter - and the movie does - but I don’t think you could can make it shocking. It’s such an extraordinary story and we live now in such an arbitrarily connected world that true surprise is effectively impossible in mass entertainment. We just have to wait for it to creep up and hit us in real life, which isn’t scripted.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunkirk; sponsored by drowning

Thanks to reviews of Dunkirk, I learned that Christopher Nolan has a phobia about drowning. Or at least that drowning features again and again in his movies. Also, I think he’s colour blind, and he hates digital, which leads to things like faking a drowning in an aeroplane by not faking it at all and practically drowning the actor for real. And also faking your crowd scenes on the beach in Dunkirk by using cardboard cutout for most of the soldiers. I was slightly surprised by that, since my assumption about Christopher Nolan’s approach to casting is that he just asks everyone he knows and they show up out of curiosity about what he’s up to now. Collateral to that was the notion that if he wanted extras, all he needed to do was mention it to the internet. But cardboard cutouts is the way that he went. In a weirdly retro way, it’s practically cool.

Anyway, if you like drowning, you’ll love Dunkirk. There’s just loads of drowning. People drowning in ditched Spitfires, people drowning in beached trawlers, people drowning in sunken warships.

As a movie that isn’t about drowning, I’m not so sure. It’s great looking, and it’s focused on one simple thing, and the performances are low key and convincing. Well, maybe not Kenneth Branagh, who spends the whole movie explaining what’s going on to people who already know damn well what’s going on. You could argue that this isn’t realistic, except that for a lot of jobs it’s the whole damn job in practice, but even if you think it’s realistic, it’s kind of a waste of time mixed with an insult to the audience’s intelligence. And the rest of the movie is about using every moment effectively, so the Branagh stuff sort of stands out a little.

The guy with the biggest investment in using time effectively is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, who has a whole hour’s worth of fuel and an apparently infinite supply of bullets. He spends most of the movie worrying about how much fuel he’s got left, before finally running out of fuel and having to glide into captivity at the hands of literally the only Germans we ever see in the whole thing. But at no point does he lose any sleep over ammunition, even though he’s got about 18 seconds worth of it. I wasn’t timing it the way I ought to have been, and maybe he only does fire eighteen seconds worth of machine guns, but it seems uncharacteristic that he doesn’t worry at all about running out of ammunition. Somehow, that bugged me, as did the way he put on his goggles once both the other Spitfires had ditched and we didn’t need to see the faces to know which pilot was which.

Still, these are quibbles. It’s a solid piece of work which has moments of real greatness, and naturally Nolan manages to pull off the excessivel tricky narrative structure of an hour for the planes and a day for the boats and more than couple of days for the grunts (the intertitles lie; you don’t see a week’s worth of life on the Mole). And while Hardy has the fun job of being the unflappable pilot, the MVP for the whole movie is Mark Rylance’s small boat captain. Rylance does calm decency like no-one else I’ve ever seen. The movie is worth it just for that. Even if I did find myself afterwards thinking “All those boats came from the south coast of England. Just like all the UKIP voters who masterminded the current disorderly retreat from Europe. That’s weird…”