Friday, 18 May 2018

Breaking In; cheap thrills

Breaking In didn’t have enough money to set even a small fire in the house where all the action happens, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a movie which realises that it’s not the size of the problem which matters, but the impact. 

They don’t make movies like this much any more. Back in the 1980s, small scale thrillers with lunkheads menacing ordinary joes for small scores were a dime a dozen, but these days thrillers cost more than space flight, and small scale movies are all about social issues. It’s not great art, but there’s always a simple pleasure in seeing something done well and without much fuss. 

Like most of those thrillers, there’s three layers; what are the nice heroes going to do to get out of this mess, why are the bad guys doing what they’re doing, and does any of that make a lick of sense? The answer to the third question is traditionally “Don’t be stupid.” and dumb thrillers work when you don’t have to time to wonder. So Gabrielle Union and her two cute kids go to check out her hated father’s big house before putting it on the market, and wind up running into four goons who’e come to steal $4 million out of a safe in the house. How do they know it’s there? The youngest and most useless gang member overheard a secretary talking about it. Does it make any sense that Gabrielle Union’s hated dad would have a huge house and $4 million in cash hidden in it? Not much. He’s supposed to be some kind of bad guy, but not enough of a bad guy to have had police all over his house after he died after getting his head kicked in.

You don’t get a lot of time to think about this, because the whole movie is about Gabrielle Union getting locked out of the house with her kids stuck inside as hostages, and then going all Rambo on the gang to get her kids back. And at one level it’s utterly preposterous, but on another it’s low key enough that we’re never being asked to believe the impossible. She’s smart and reasonably fit, and very determined, and it’s not hard to buy any of the things she does to get her own way.

It’s not high art; it’s not even this, for example. But it’s solid stuff, especially Billy Burke’s putupon gang leader, whose henchman recruitment process may have been too rushed. He’s got one psycho, one punk and one kind-of-tech-expert who gets knocked out of the running before he can make much of an impression. At first Billy just comes across as tired middle management trying to get the job done with as little fuss as his bad help will let him away with, and then you realise that he’s worse than any of the other gang members without even the excuse of being crazy. Still great fun to watch as he gets more and more fed up with the way a perfectly straightforward murder-robbery turns into a hostage drama.

And, of course since it’s bad guys locked in a house, there’s a rolling game of Chekhov’s household utensils as random stuff pops onto the screen so that Gabrielle can use it twenty minutes later to turn the tables on the bad guys. Depending on your position on Chekhov’s gun, you may find it frustrating or realistic that half the prompts turn out to be feints ...

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War. Dudes, cut off the arm!

Another month, another Marvel movie, and because the stakes have to keep going up no matter what, everyone but Hawkeye shows up in an effort to save half the universe.

Spoilers.

It may take them a sequel and a crazy-big time machine to pull that one off. 

Still, they have two things going for them. The first is that Thanos is an idiot, and the second is that the Avengers are, collectively and individually, also idiots. So all they need is a time machine and a plan which involves even one Avenger not being an idiot. I’d say that doesn’t seem much to ask, but I’ve just watched Avengers: Infinity War and you know what they say about past performance being the best guide to the future … 

Why is Thanos an idiot? Because he’s a prisoner of habit. In the course of the movie he accumulates all the Infinity Stones, which give him more and more powers to warp reality, cut people into cubes by thinking about it, and basically anything which the special effects team thinks looks good. And the closer he gets to collecting the complete set, the more time he spends getting stuck in punchups with the Avengers. Sure, he needs all six stones to be able to wipe half the universe by clicking his fingers, but by the time he’s collected four of them he can win any fight by rigging it his way and the fifth lets him turn back time without even looking for Cher’s assistance. Why is he still getting into fistfights?

And why are the Avengers idiots? Because Thanos can’t be bothered wearing a helmet, and his power resides in a big metal glove at the end of a big unarmoured arm. So naturally no-one puts a bullet in his head, even when they’ve got a gun pointing at his eye from three inches out, and no-one even tries to cut his arm off, even though Dr Strange can cut anything off anything else (and DOES cut an arm off a bogey in the early going), the Hulk can tear the arm off most things (including his own robot suit) and and Thor has an axe which can cut through anything he throws it at. No glove, no power. There’s even a ridiculous scene where a whole bunch of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy band together to try to pull the glove off Thanos, but somehow draw the line at doing it the easy way.

So, morons.

Then there’s Thanos’ master plan, which is based on the notion that the universe will be a better place if half the sentient creatures in it are randomly killed. Firstly, this is at best a temporary fix. People breed. Kill half of them, and in a hundred years the numbers will be right back up where they were. Secondly, you can’t kill half the people. Well, you can, and Thanos - SPOILERS - does. The problem is what happens to everyone on a bus when the bus driver is one of the random choices. Or everyone within half a mile of a nuclear power plant when you kill half the staff at random. Or everyone in a modern society when you kill half the truck drivers who get the food into town. And so on. You kill half the people, and then the lack of those guys kills a whole lot more.

Still, who the hell goes to a Marvel movie hoping it’s going to make any kind of sense? I get you, but honestly, Marvel really seem to think that this is serious business. So serious that they end the movie with Thanos winning, half the universe dead and loads of feature players turned into dust. If they were really serious, they’d be saving a fortune on all the sequels. Not to mention the number of good actors who can get back to doing something other than react to green painted tennis balls. It would be a genuinely bummer ending if we believed for one second that Marvel really meant it and wasn’t going to spend two and a half more hours next year pressing the reset button and bringing everyone bakc to life. As it is, it’s just - meh.

Mostly because the movie is stuffed with characters to the point where no-one gets more than a couple of lines. Hawkeye’s not even in the movie, and I think he gets more lines than Black Widow. Rocket barely gets anything to do. Between a roller coaster of action scenes and way too many characters, there’s almost no chance for anyone do make a connection with the audience. When you’re hardly there, it doesn’t really register when you turn into dust and blow away. Unless you’re Spiderman, I guess.

And in every cinema, you’re going to get a trailer for Deadpool 2, which shows that there is another way to go; keep it small, keep it scrappy, keep it funny. There are more funny moments in that trailer than in the whole of Infinity War, whose cleverest joke is stunt casting Peter Dinklage as a giant. The second funniest moment is Scarlet Witch showing up to sort out the final fight and basically render everyone else in it irrelevant; one of the Wakandan guard looks straight to camera and says “Why wasn’t she here from the beginning?”, on behalf of the whole audience, and then the scene cuts back to what she was supposed to guarding as the sneaky bad guys pounce on the real prize in her absence. That’s actually cleverer than the Dinklage moment, but it’s hard to out funny Tyrion.

Anyhow, roll on Deadpool. Deadpool would at least TRY to cut the arm off.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Rampage; yeah, of course the wolf can fly

The trailer for Rampage had me with that line, because Dwayne Johnson has all the charm it needed. And also because it proved that the movie understood that it was dumb, which makes a nice change.

The actual movie’s great fun. It’s idiotic and it doesn’t make any sense, but it hangs together better than a lot of Marvel movies I’ve seen. It also knows when to throw a character away or down the gullet of a big monster. In most movies I’ve seen, Dwayne’s team of zoo dweebs would have stuck with him throughout the movie; in Rampage, once Dwayne’s busted and crammed onto a military transport, the dweebs are left stuck in San Diego and we never see them again. Similarly when the bad guys send bad guy mercenaries into the wild to hunt down a thirty foot flying wolf they aren’t expecting to meet, they get et to the last man, helicopter and all. Sure, their leader looks like he’d have been fun to see more of, but they were completely outmatched; there was no way he was going to make it. This cheery willingness to put interesting people on the screen, and then not keep them around is something I wish other people would learn from.  No-one wears out their welcome.

And the action setpieces work. The movie opens up with a space station full of genetic lunacy exploding while the last survivor tries to get out with a couple of samples. She does not make it, but for her brief time on screen, we’re rooting for her, and there’s just enough action to keep our pulses racing and not so much that we forget there’s a person in the middle of it. Which pretty much sets the tone for proceedings, equal part Dwayne being Dwayne and stuff getting trashed for no especially good reason. 

And there’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the role of sinister yet good hearted government fixer Russell; I’d watch a whole movie about Russell if it weren’t for the fact that Morgan makes him so effortlessly effective that there would be no real stakes in Russell: the Movie. Victory would be inevitable, with nothing left to wonder about other than just how many low key wisecracks Russell could fit in before his opponents shot their own feet off. Morgan’s so much fun that each time he shows up you welcome the cameo instead of wondering just how he always knows where to be at the right moment, and how he gets there without breaking sweat. It’s a shame Morgan’s been tied up playing Negan these last couple of years, because he’s far too much fun to waste on a bummer like Walking Dead.

Rampage isn’t a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but I wish there were more simple crowdpleasers like it.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Ready Player One: Spielberg is better than this.

Traditionally, when you see an adaptation of a book, you have to take some kind of stance on which was better, or you’re just no kind of a commentator at all. Sue me. I tried to read the book, and kind of ran out of energy by the time Wade gets the first key. It’s not that it’s a bad book; it’s just that it wasn’t good enough for me to stick with it. There’s no way that I can work up an interest in pop culture trivia and computer games for their own sake. And Ernest Cline doesn’t have much of a style. I found his downbeat slow-motion apocalypse US all too believable. I liked the fact that Wade was fat. What I didn’t really like was Wade. And when you’re not really that fussed about the narrator; well, I was only reading the book to inform my experience of the movie, and it wasn’t that much of a priority.

So I dunno how true to the book the movie is. Probably not a lot, going on the bit I read. Same setting, same over-arching plot, but all new adventures, compressed into a shorter time and much more cinematic. And Wade’s not fat any more. Kind of a schlub, but good looking and well put together. It’s all a lot more … Hollywood than the original, I suspect.

But is it good Hollywood? This is Spielberg, the only reason I even bothered. Apparently it was his hardest movie since Saving Private Ryan, which is something I can’t understand but only take on faith. The effects shots took so long to render that Spielberg had time to go and make The Post while he waited for them to finish. They’re technically impressive, and yet, as is always the way with CGI, uninvolving no matter how good they look. A world where everyone can be whatever they want to be is somehow a world without any real stakes, no matter how flashy it looks. 

This despite the fact that the movie is going crazy trying to get you to invest. Everyone’s competing for a hidden easter egg in a computer game, and the winner will get half a trillion dollars and absolute control of a hideous mashup of Facebook and virtual reality in which apparently the whole world spends all its free time. So clearly, this shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, or something. But we’re watching this movie uncomfortably conscious that most of this stuff doesn’t so much fall into the wrong hands as start out from there and then fall apart after a few years.

So, stakes that are hard to understand, visuals which are impressive without being emotionally resonant. Have we characters to believe in? Most of the time we’re watching avatars in VR, who are purposely heightened cartoons of what their people want to look like. And because they’re supposed to look kind of fake, they never really start to stick as people for us to care about. Then we swap out to their people, and there’s really not that much going on there either. A lot of the time, all that holds the attention is little moments when a character pulls out a gun and you recognise it from another movie. 

Over on the grown up side of the table, Mark Rylance is thrown away as the creator of the whole schemozzle; and when I say thrown away, I mean that it takes a very particular kind of mind to slap a wig on Mark Rylance and then tell him to play as spectrum as he can. Rylance has a rare charisma; he steals Bridge of Spies from Tom Hanks by somehow out-warming him. Telling him to dial that down is like duct-taping the Mona Lisa. Ben Mendelsohn, on the other hand, must be getting worried that he’s only ever going to play hapless creeps running empires of nerds who secretly hate him.

And as so often, I’m struggling to make sense of the economics. The US economy has collapsed, yet somehow a fortune of half a trillion dollars has retained its value in a world where no-one has a job or any spending power. The whole world’s living in a virtual reality as much of the time as it can, yet the big corporate bad maintains huge factories in which people slave away at virtual tasks which they could just as well do from home. There’s an enormous pervasive network with the bandwidth to let everyone participate in cinematic high definition shared spaces, but no real sign of the servers and transmission systems which would make it work.

 None of this is puzzling as the way in which Spielberg can’t make the world or the people come to life. There’s an assured sequence at the beginning, as Wade expositions the world of 2045 and the role of VR, and the camera roams around the high rise slum he lives in. Everyone in sight is hooked into VR, goggles strapped to their faces and waving their arms and legs around to make something happen in an imaginary world, and Spielberg finds ways to suggest that everyone is doing something different, and feeling all kinds of different things about it, from drudgery to desperation to elation. And then the camera settles on Wade, and the sense of the world falls away, never to come back.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Isle of Dogs: Wes Anderson hates cats

I’m not sure what’s the worst thing about my Isle of Dogs experience. Is it that I kept trying to figure out which dog was George Clooney when he wasn’t even in the movie, or is it that I fell asleep in the first twenty minutes and kept having to shake myself awake?

Isle of Dogs is apparently the longest ever stop-motion animated movie, and based on that, I’d say it’s probably not a sound strategy to try to break the record. Stop motion may not be suited to long form. A big problem, especially the way Wes Anderson does it, is that there’s not a lot of, you know, actual motion. Stop-motion’s not suited to action, or dynamic editing, or any of the things which we’re conditioned to expect in a movie. It does static setpieces and simple movements in a single plane. And because it’s puppets, you’re not getting much subtlety in expression or characterisation. So as everyone yacks away without ever really doing anything, you start to fade out. I’m not sure what I missed; I’m pretty sure that I didn’t miss anything which mattered hugely to the plot.

Still, it’s a Wes Anderson movie, so it’s different. Wes is not like the other kids. The more movies he clocks up, the more I realise how much Rushmore was autobiographical. Wes is doing things the hard way just for the sake of being different, not because it necessarily adds anything important to the emotionality of what you see. And definitely not because there’s any internal consistency to it. All the Japanese characters are voiced by Japanese actors speaking Japanese, with a variety of contrivances to provide an English gloss when Wes thinks you’re going to need it. But the contrivances are so stupid that subtitles would have been less distracting. For all the big political speeches about the background there’s an English language interpreter. But why would there even be an interpreter? This is Japanese local politics, which is to say local politics in a country which famously has no interest in letting foreigners have any kind of role or input in their community. They’d be just as likely to set themselves on fire in mid-speech as lay on English language interpretation.

And why is it happening in Japan at all? For all the effort to have Japanese actors speaking Japanese, it’s hard to see how this is a story which could only be told in Japan. 

Eh. I dunno. 

I was distracted by the fact that there was an Assistant Hatchetman to the Mayor of Megasaki, which left my literal little mind waiting for the Hatchetman proper to make an appearance. Spoiler, he doesn’t. Nor is there any real explanation for the sudden appearance of four cats in the middle of the aftermath of the climactic battle between Spots and the robo-dog. Were the cats inside the robo-dog? I was hoping that they had actually been inside the Mayor, operating him all along like the mythical eight squirrels in a raincoat. So many pointless questions. 

But in the end, it’s a deliberately weird Wes Anderson movie, full of visual oddity and forced quirkiness which almost make it worth watching just to see what he’s done this time. But it’s not got the panache and rewatchability of something like The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I’d almost say in a choice between watching Hotel again and watching Isle of Dogs for the first time, Hotel might be the better use of your time. The trailer for Isle of Dogs tells you everything you need to know about the look of the movie, and there’s not so much to it beyond the look that you’re losing a whole lot by never seeing it in full.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Proud Mary: I want a Maserati

I still don’t know what Mary is proud of, and I can’t help thinking the producers went looking for a song they could score a gunfight to, and then called the character after it. No-one ever calls Mary proud, and she doesn’t do anything very proud looking either. It’s a puzzle the movie can’t be bothered to answer.

It does answer a couple of other obvious questions. I spent the whole movie wondering why a hit woman would drive such a conspicuous car, and whether the movie had the budget to destroy it. The climax answers that question; Mary’s driving a Maserati because it’s indestructible, and the movie had the budget to shoot it full of bullet holes and rip a door off it. Good buying choice, overall, since she could still make a getaway in it after that. Meanwhile I had to get my car towed to a garage because one lousy spring broke. 

The other question is “Why does Mary’s gang not let her retire if she feels like it?” was partially answered in the same climactic shootout. “Because no-one else in the whole gang could hit a man-sized target even if they were superglued to it.” A whole posse of gangsters working from prepared positions with assault rifles didn’t manage to put a graze on her while Mary was shooting offhand while running and landing perfect headshots. Clearly, she’s an indispensable employee, or she would be if there was anything left at the end to employ her.

Three members of the cast survive, and I’m not prepared to bet that one of them didn’t die off screen from shock at the rest of the gang being wiped out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wholehearted commitment to body count. Ebola doesn’t work that thoroughly. John Wick doesn’t kill that much of a cast.

Weird stuff. Main character is a woman, but there’s only one other female cast member and she barely gets three lines. No Bechdel for you, Proud Mary. The worst gangsters are all Russians, but the slightly better gangsters are a little more diverse, like a 1970s black gang had a programme for token whites. It’s a crime movie set in Boston, but it has no Ben Affleck. Or Slaine. Or Boston accents, actually. The movie’s echoing all those blaxploitation movies of the 1970s (especially in the opening credits) but with these weird nods to modernity; Russians have replaced what would have undoubtedly been Italians back in the day, and the slightly more heroic mob are not ALL one colour. And somehow Danny Glover didn’t get the chance to tell us that he was too old for this shit, even though he visibly is. Oh, and this is a crime movie where we never see a policeman or even hear a police siren. On the other hand, it’s a crime movie where every criminal but one has been killed by another criminal by the end credits, so maybe the police aren’t needed.

It’s not a terrible movie, because the cast is good enough to rise above the material and the glaring budget limitations, but it’s not the movie the cast deserve. It’s never a good sign when drama’s supposed to be going down and I’m looking at the stacks of pallets in the background wondering how they match up to a pack of model pallets I bought and have to stick together.

Lastly, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to ask this, who is it that makes custom gun cabinets for the mass murderers of Hollywood? Every second gun for hire has got a special cupboard which they open up and it’s got peg boards covered in machine guns and a series of drawers with special foam lined cutouts for different pistols. Who makes this stuff, and why don’t the cops come around to their workshops and ask for the invoices? And who needs special foam padding for handguns? They’re not exactly dainty pieces of porcelain which will shatter if you leave them loose in a drawer. They’re designed to withstand explosions. And if you’re murdering people with them, I don’t imagine you’re too worried about them staying shiny and clean; no meticulous hitwoman’s going to keep a gun that has a body on it. You drop that like it’s on fire.

Monday, 26 March 2018

The Shape of Water; and the Oscar for being a del Toro film goes to ...

Because I am a deeply shallow person, my favourite bit of The Shape of Water is the credit Guillermo del Toro got for doing the creature noises. I have too much respect for him to think that he did this just to screw Doug Jones out of the rate for a speaking part, though there is a bit of me which would admire such grandiose pettiness. I just thought it was funny that such a self-serious movie shared something with all the Despicable Me movies, for which director Pierre Coffin has always provided the giddy blithering of the minions.

Other than that, The Shape of Water is primarily del Toro’s best film ever to win a best film Oscar. It’s never less than good, but it never rises to the level of Pan’s Labyrinth - nor, in fairness, does it swing off into the gorgeous swivel-eyed lunacy of Crimson Peak If you’re a del Toro fan, your main reaction is likely to be, well, fair enough, he had an Oscar coming, but it’s coming to the wrong movie.

Still, it’s a very del Toro movie. The monster is the white establishment male filled with rage and murder, and he only gets what’s coming to him when he’s ruined everything. Step forward Michael Shannon as Robert Strickland. Michael Shannon always plays people who should have been sectioned before they left high school, and instead have been given guns and badges. He was born to play a del Toro villain, and I hope that now they’ll let him play someone who’s, I don’t know, sane. Or something.

Sally Hawkins, meanwhile, is as close as I’ve seen to a follow up to the female cast of Pan’s Labyrinth, somehow capturing the courage and wonder of Ofelia and the frailty of her mother all in one bravely withdrawn performance. However, making her character mute leaves me scratching my head about you could ever score this movie on the Bechdel test. There are, just about, two named female characters (Octavia Spencer’s Zelda is the other one), and they do kind of have conversations, but I don’t know that they have one which isn’t about a man, or about an amphibian man. And yet I’d say that this is a movie which has some things to say about the world which women had to inhabit around the time I was born, and how it’s a good thing that it’s not like that any more. It’s just that there has to be some way to tell these stories that isn’t completely dominated by the monstrousness of men.

And the dinginess of the past. Everything is worn and old and battered, even the things which logically would have been new. The one great exception is Robert Strickland’s shiny new Cadillac, which he doesn’t deserve. The whole audience cheered and laughed when a van gets gratuitously crashed into it and ruins its looks for ever. That was my second favourite bit. Strickland’s barely got into his stride as a monster at this point, and I still took an uncomplicated joy out of the idea of his new car getting wrecked.

It’s a great looking movie, filled with pathos, and sometimes with an unbearable sense of tension; as always in del Toro, this is not going to end well, and the only question is just how badly it’s all going to pan out. That question’s never really answered; the story’s being told by someone who didn’t really see the ending, and is just hoping that it was a happy one; what you take away from it will depend on whether you can hold that hope as well.