Saturday, 22 September 2018

BlackkKlansman

Blackkklansman is a movie too heartfelt to be fun, even though it’s got a lot of funny moments. It’s bookended by reminders of what hate looks like; it opens with a montage of Alec Baldwin making a racist propaganda film in the 1960s, and closes with footage of the real events of the last couple of years, hammering home that this is something which hasn’t gone away, no matter how much it might feel like the characters in the main action have managed some kind of local victory against racism.

The movie’s set unobtrusively in the 70s, getting most of the setting and costumes right without making a big deal of it, but there’s a constant undercurrent of echoes of the present day, to the point where it almost wouldn’t be surprising to have someone look right out of the screen at the audience and say “Y’all know this isn’t really set in the past, don’t ya?"

The weird thing to me was not that it made racists ugly and repellent, but that it made everyone human. The racists were repellent, but for every one of them there was at least one moment where they did something that was just the stuff that people do, those moments of affection and trust which make the hatred even harder to understand. And strikingly, it doesn’t make white authority figures either fools or monsters. For the most part, the white cops who surround Ron Stallworth are a believable mixture of decency and obliviousness, people doing their best and finding it hard to understand how anyone wouldn’t. Adam Driver, who plays Stallworth’s white beard, pretty much steals the show whenever he gets a scene to himself, and the rest of the time is utterly convincing as a guy who just wants to get his job done and is being dragged against his will into giving a damn about it. John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, has an easier job as a smart guy who can’t believe how dumb the world is, but like his dad Denzel, he has an effortless charisma which lets him hold his own against the likes of Driver.

Lee also does something which needed to be done, and which I haven’t seen much before. In a movie which is largely about how terrible white people can be, he takes a long, long take in the middle to show the audience how beautiful black people can be. Stallworth goes to a Black Power meeting early in the movie, and the camera pans endlessly through the audience, catching their delighted reactions to the speaker. It’s black faces in a darkened room, and from a purely technical point of view, lighting it must have been the biggest challenge in the whole movie. Film is optimised for white faces, and exposing for black faces is always trickier than it should be. Lee’s work here is masterful, and does something for everyone who watches it. 

Afterwards, I was mulling over the persistence of the Klan and the way in which bigots always seem to feel that they are being outnumbered and overborne by the people they used to oppress. And it struck me that in one way, bigots are right to feel outnumbered. At some level they know that while white people are the majority, assholes like them are a tiny minority. There are, indeed, far more black people in America than there are white people awful enough to say out loud the things which Klansmen say. The problem, of course, is that the white majority stays quiet in the face of the Klan. There’s nothing new about this. It’s a long time since Edmund Burke pointed out that for evil to prosper, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing. But perhaps people need to stop thinking of themselves as good people when they do nothing. Perhaps it’s time for them to accept that if they do nothing, they’re not good people at all.

M R Carey: The Boy on the Bridge

No-one is going to buy this unless they’ve already read The Girl with All the Giftsand so everyone reading it is going to feel their heart sink a little as they realise that we’re back in the Rosalind Franklin, the armoured mobile lab which shows up in central London in Girl and becomes Miss Justineau’s prison. We all know that Rosie winds up abandoned in the middle of London with its crew dead or missing, so we know that the forecast for the people in this book is …  not promising.

Just like Girl, this is a book that I read in short stretches, tip-toeing through the prose and pausing at intervals to steel myself in case the next chapter turned into Benjie’s world of blood. Rosie is doomed, and the suspense is just how doomed the crew are, and to a lesser extent how Rosie winds up abandoned in London.

How Rosie winds up in London is almost irrelevant; Carey dashes it off in a couple of pages after the main action of the book has unfolded. What matter is what comes before. The heart of Girl was the three cornered relationship between a child, a mother surrogate, and a weary soldier as they cross a devastated landscape. In and around that were other tensions; ambitious scientists with no morality left and semi-expendable grunts trying to keep the world at bay. Carey’s used essentially the same template, but put new characters into it.

Melanie has become Stephen Greaves, a teenage genius who might just be smart enough to figure out how the fungal infection works, but is so damaged by childhood trauma that he can’t explain it to anyone. Miss Justineau has become Samrina Khan, a scientist who has replaced Stephen’s mother in every way that matters, and Sgt Parks has become Col Carlisle, the military leader of the expedition. They occupy the same spaces on the emotional board of the book, and yet they’re nothing like the characters from the first book, and they work out their redemptions and sacrifices in very different ways.

It’s a very satisfying book, especially for a prequel. It fills in points that the earlier (but later) book didn’t bother with, but it doesn’t make a point of explaining all the back story. What we’re told is what the story itself needs, nothing more. That’s something I can really respect having sat through Hollywood’s notions of how a prequel ought to work. But what made me put the book down at the end in complete satisfaction was the ending, which closes out both the story of the survivors of this book, and the story of the survivors of Girl. Harder hearts might argue that the ending is pat and sentimental, but for me it gave the good guys the ending they deserved.

The ending might even, for all I know, be some kind of sequel hook. What’s been done will stand on its own, and I thought the same thing when there was just Girl. So if Carey comes out with a third book one of these days, it might really be something.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Equalizer 2; the Sequeliser

I didn’t really like The Equalizer all that much, but I am encouraged to see that what I kind of liked in the first movie was what I kind of liked in the second one; Denzel’s Robet McCall is better company when he’s good humouredly watching the world around him and sticking his thumb on the scales from time to time to let the little guys get a little more than they might have coming. Everything else just underlines why making the Equalizer into a movie was a mistake. The Equalizer doesn’t do big movie length projects; he does small neighborhood stuff. Ramming a big plot into the movies just hammers home how much they should have stayed as episodic TV.

Still, Robert McCall’s breathtaking sadism is still firmly in place. Don’t kill anyone simply when you can hurt them a whole bunch beforehand. Reflecting on it afterward, I thought to be myself that Denzel could have made a movie which was the equal of his real talent by making McCall a sadistic sociopath who knew he was a problem, and rationed out his moments of sadism only when he felt like he’d earned them. Denzel would have been more than up to the job of someone doing the right thing precisely so that he could reward himself by doing the wrong thing.

Instead he just goes around hurting people in ways that I think are supposed to make the audience give an atavistic “yay!” as various button-pushing low-lifes get maimed or stabbed to bits because they’ve somehow fetched up on McCall’s radar. Quite why Boston PD isn’t hunting him down as a serial killer is never very clear. In one of the early fist-pumping sequences he goes all medieval on the asses of a bunch for frat boy lawyers who’ve raped an intern and then poured her into McCall’s Lyft taxi as though that was all the consideration she needed. He does not cotton to this, and comes back to give them some lessons in what pain feels like. And particularly in 2018, the sight of rapists getting maimed is sort of cathartic. But he leaves his witnesses alive, having told them he’s the Lyft driver who picked up the girl. He even makes a point of asking the last of them to leave him a five star rating. How does that NOT turn into a sub-poena fired off at Lyft to get his home address?

Still, Denzel’s easy going charm makes a lot of it work. One standout is the moment when he pulls the world’s most polite hostage-taking, walking off with the villain-in-chief’s wife and kids as if he’s just cadging a lift instead of taking them hostage to stop the villain and his mooks from stabbing him. It’s elegant, minimalist, classy and - when you think about it - really creepy.

But it’s just a wrong movie. And there’s one moment that tells you who the audience is supposed to be, and why they should all be on some kind of watch list. McCall takes on the last of the big bads in a small town during a hurricane, and one of his jinks takes him through a bakery. As he strolls through, he casually slashes open every flour sack in sight and turns on all the fans he can find. “Ah,” I said. “Expedient flour-air explosive.” And so it came to pass. This is a movie written to please the kind of people who think that they could improvise a bomb out of whatever they can find in their kitchens.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

King of Thieves; what's it really telling us.

King of Thieves can’t make its mind up whether it’s a comedy or a drama, which makes it pretty lifelike, but would be a disaster if they hadn’t simplified the problem by hiring a cast of old stagers who could make the characters come to life either way. It’s a movie about a jewellery heist which ends in disaster. Ealing used to do this all the time, making genial comedy out of failed robberies in a time when people weren’t supposed to get away with their crimes but still needed to be loveable enough that you kind of hoped they would. Time moves on, and we don’t be doing that kind of thing any more, so it’s not an Ealing movie at all.

It’s based - I’ve no idea how loosely - on the real world robbery of the Hatton Garden diamond vault in 2015, which was carried out by a bunch of geriatrics who briefly amazed the world by pulling off an apparently perfect robbery before getting caught by police who used modern technology to pin them down with CCTV and phone triangulation.  As brought to life by Caine, Gambon, Broadbent, Courtenay and Winstone, they come off as a bunch of a curmudgeonly old gits who brought themselves down by a mixture of hubris and mutual distrust. They’re utterly believable as a group of old men struggling with both modernity and a lifetime of mistakes and unresolved arguments. It feels true, but you’d hate to be stuck in a lift with them.

It’s also a movie which simply keeps the camera on its stars. Francesca Annis is the only speaking female presence, briefly there as Caine’s wife, whose death seems to have jolted him out of quiet retirement into the notion of one last job. The police circling the gang in the aftermath of the heist are never seen speaking; they wordlessly pass files to each other or sit watchfully in the shadows until finally they pounce, modern, diverse and armed to the teeth. The huge back catalogue of all the old stagers lets the director cut to flashback of the crooks’ heydays, dropping in clips from older movies to suggest what they were like in their prime; to be honest, it’s a gimmick which would have worked better if it had been less flashy. When it’s used for the last time, as the lags walk off to be sentenced, it works best, slow and dignified.

Well, it’s an anti-Ealing. But more than that, it’s a metaphor for something else. The heist is planned meticulously, even though the plan doesn’t quite work. It’s striking that there’s nothing like the same amount of planning for the aftermath. It’s almost as though the gang never really thought they’d get away with it, so they didn’t need a plan for fencing off the loot or sharing it out. As soon as they’re clear, they start to fall out and squabble over the division of the spoils, with no apparent sense of the value of what they’ve stolen or who might be able to shift it for them. And I started to think that it was all just like Brexit; a gang of backward looking people planning a spectacular coup with no plan for the follow up, only to be brought down by mutual distrust and a failure to understand how the modern world works.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Meg

I will pretty much go to watch anything with Jason Statham in it, because the Stath is somehow awesome despite ticking all the boxes to make him a terrible actor. He pretty much has one expression and one tone of voice, and he tends to show up in action movies with no redeeming qualities other than the Stath his own bad self. IN some ways he’s like a grumpier Dwayne Johnson, carrying along movies which would be absolutely irredeemable without him. 

And on paper, you’re thinking; the Stath fights a giant shark. What can go wrong? Well, let’s establish some baselines here. The Meg is not a good movie, but it’s a less annoying movie than Skyscraper, to pick an example of a movie built around the Rock which just didn’t work. The Meg had an extra 5 million in the budget over Skyscraper, but they share a certain reverence for Chinese people and a largely Chinese setting. Skyscraper has a more consistent look; The Meg has kind of OK underwater CGI, and kind of craptastic looking live action surface work, which means that every time you get out of the water you feel like you’re going back in time to the days when action movies were made with whatever actual props were handy and we didn’t know enough to wonder why everything looked like it had been salvaged by drunk people. 

Anyhow, the Stath has to stop a huge shark from eating all the everythings. This does not go incredibly well. Several speaking parts and quite a few beachgoers get gobbled up before the Meg gets its chips, though dog lovers everywhere will be delighted to see that the dog in peril survives to the closing credits. So does Ruby Rain. I can’t figure out Ruby Rain; any time I’ve seen her in anything, I’ve wanted to see more of her, but I can’t pin down why. She just has a bit of presence and movies seem to give her less to do than she might be up to. Anyhow, she gets about ten lines and nearly eaten two or three times, and I hope she gets more work soon.

People who don’t make it; I was really annoyed that neither Masi Oka nor Olafur Olafsson made it. They were playing the only characters with more than one dimension, and they’re immensely likeable actors. So I was fed up when the both got chomped. Particularly Olafsson. By the time he gets chummed up he’s had a chance to build up a real presence, and as the pieces got moved into place for his demise I was dreading it. About half the cast gets killed, but this was the only death which made me anxious. And weirdly, he’d shown up in last week’s movie; he had a four minute cameo as a tourist in a hostel who deus ex machinas one of the bad guys.

Anyhow, it’s not a great movie, but it’s not a bad bad movie. And having played it pretty straight the whole way through, it closed out on a gag; as the credits rolled, the first word to come up was “Fin”.

Monday, 27 August 2018

The Spy Who Dumped Me

The Spy Who Dumped Me had me with the trailer, because Kate McKinnon was the best thing in the Ghostbusters remake, and I was happy to show up and see what else she could do. Having recently been described as “anarchy in a can” I feel a certain kinship for people who act first, and think so differently that it really don’t matter than much when they do the thinking.

And it’s a fun movie. The front half of it in particular, which is just more and more things going wrong without any really coherent explanation. The back half of it stumbes a bit on trying to tie all the things back together into some kind of a plot, which is a mistake. More stupidity would have been both funnier and and more true to the spirit the movie was setting up.

When the movie works, it works because the leads work. Mila Kunis has become very good at portraying reasonably smart women who can’t quite get it together, and there’s something completely believable in the way that she responds to each new bit of idiocy; Mila has a great “And this now?” face. The idiocy is coming thick and fast too. On the one hand, her best friend is the kind of person who seems like a lot of fun to watch from a safe distance, and on the other hand her ex-boyfriend was a creep with dangerous friends. And yet, you can see how Kate and Mila have stuck together despite the idiocy. I could watch them bickering good-naturedly and making things worse all day. Their friendship makes sense, even when nothing else does.

Meanwhile, the who spy side of things is joltingly crunchy. Most spy spoofs either don’t have the budget for proper stunts, or think that gritty violence would sour the mood. This one definitely had the money, and they didn’t spend it on donuts. The fights are downright nasty, and the body count is as ludicrous as a mainstream movie. Don’t get too attached to comic relief characters; they tend to end their scenes with a messy headshot. Or get crunched into a grungy hostel floor before getting their thumb cut off and put in a lipstick container so that the movie can get a Chekhov’s thumb gag later on. 

Does this pass the Bechdel test? Man I don’t even know any more. On the one hand, it’s a movie with two strong female leads, directed by a woman, talking non stop; on the other hand, a lot of the time they’re talking about things which men have been doing, and there’s a sense in which it does all wind up being about which of a couple of men to trust. On the other other hand, it’s a spoof spy movie; just how much do you want from a dumb movie anyway? At least it felt like a film where women had had some chance to kick the worst bits off the script and make the dialogue sound like the kinds of things which women might say to each other.

And in a move which suggests that she’s entering the Helen Mirren phase of her career, Gillian Anderson shows up in a cameo to class things up and generally make everyone look like they're barely keeping up with whatever game she’s playing. That’s one bit that I think worked exactly the way they planned it.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Ant-Man & the Wasp; Marvel plays the long game

I’m ashamed to say that when I yacked on about the first Ant-Man movie, I completely failed to mention how much I liked Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne. She was not given remotely enough to do, but she was a fun piece of attitude in every scene she had, and she got to punch Paul Rudd in the nose, which was more satisfying than it should have been. So it’s good news that she’s got more to do in Ant-Man and the Wasp, to the point where you could argue that it ought to be called The Wasp, featuring Ant-Man.

So, there’s that, but the other big improvement over the first movie is that the stakes are personal. Everyone is just trying to do one simple thing. They’re not trying to save the world; they’re not even paying a huge amount of attention to the world. Henry Pym and Hope van Dyne are trying to save Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp, Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, from being stuck in the “quantum zone”. We will pass in silence over the sheer lunacy of the idea that you can be stuck in the sub atomic realm for thirty years and still be intact, let alone sane, and simply enjoy the fact that people in a Marvel movie are pursuing a simple, human-scaled objective which does not involve daddy-issues. They rope in Ant-Man, and then other people get pulled into the mess, and there’s lots of stunts and ridiculous physics, but they never ever lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve, and so the stunts feel like they’re happening in pursuit of the story, instead of the story having been hammered into shape around the stunts.

Which means that it’s a fun movie. It’s not as much fun as Deadpool, but it’s the only Marvel thing I’ve seen which even comes close. The physics of Ant-Man’s world are preposterous but if they keep the gags coming you can forgive a lot of it. Touchingly, they keep trying to salvage the unsalvageable. Hank and Hope have a secret lab which they can compact down to the size of a rolling suitcase. Naturally it get stolen and then chucked from hand to hand, which you’d think would have the same effect as an earthquake, but luckily they remembered to "switch on the gyroscopic stabilisers” before they shrank it! The other nice thing is that they don’t have some implacable villain; the Ghost is someone boxed into doing bad things to save herself, and Walton Goggins' slimy financier [1] is wonderfully small time and inept, while the government stooges are charmingly well-meaning and beleaguered. There’s no-one to root against, just lots of people to enjoy. Michael Pena’s motormouth character Luis is back and just anchors every scene he’s in. There’s something so lived in about his character that he retrospectively makes Paul Rudd’s Scott more believable as a person as well. Rounding out the cast and proving that eventually everyone who has ever lived will be in a Marvel movie, Michelle Pfeiffer joins Michael Douglas. Neither is really acting, but they do class the place up a bit. Michael Douglas may not be acting at all; he’s just a little too good at being a grumpy old man.

So, it’s a fun light-hearted movie and makes a nice change from the last Marvel-a-thon. Right up until it doesn’t. Spoilers, I suppose. You know the way they keep putting credits sequences into the end of Marvel movies to throw in a gag or lighten the tone? What if they kept doing that until we were used to it, and then used one to switch the tone completely in a fun movie? Ant-Man, meet Thanos. It’s brilliantly done. Took them 20 movies, but it was worth it. It has more of an impact than the big dust-off at the end of Infinity War. It comes out of the blue, and it hits people that we’ve got happy to be around. That’s how you do a shock ending. Do more of that.

 

[1] As continues to be the tradition in Hollywood, Goggins is playing someone who should have been executed 24 hours ago, this time for crimes against style.