Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Mummy; who's your daddy?

There’s a moment, about fifteen or twenty minutes into The Mummy when people who’re tired on Marvel movies might say to themselves “Well, they’ve got the origin story out of the way quickly enough.” Nope. The whole movie is the origin story for how Tom Cruise gets to be The Mummy, because heaven forbid that we could have two superhero style movies in one year where there’s a strong woman character with the movie named after her. Poor old Ahmanet is just the catalyst for Tom Cruise to become the title character. Which short changes Sofia Boutella, a performer who could own the screen without any dialogue in Kingsman and makes as good a fist as anyone could of the stupid dialogue in The Mummy. You could have made a perfectly decent Mummy movie for half the price by letting her do ALL the heavy lifting.

Easily the best thing about the movie they DID make is the decision to make Tom Cruise play a jerk. Tom Cruise is at his best when he plays self-absorbed dickheads, because there’s something in his face which somehow makes it easy for him to play shiftiness. Inevitably he insists on getting a reforming arc, but it’s fun til he gets there. They had a trailer before The Mummy for his other 2017 movie and it looks like he’s going to be even more of a dirtbag in that. One advantage of making Cruise a jerk is that it becomes less difficult to understand his epic lack of chemistry with female co-stars. Annabelle Wallis is, for all I know, a brilliant actress, but Cruise brings out her inner tree-stump every time they’re on screen together. It’s easier to understand when he’s being annoying.

Other weird bits; clearly the writing team shared my undying love for American Werewolf in London, since there’s a running gag through the middle of the movie where Tom Cruise is haunted by the buddy he took for a suicidal walk in the Iraqi countryside and indirectly turned into one of the living dead.

And finally, just as in the credits, Russell Crowe as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hyde may have involved less actual acting for Crowe, but it was weird to watch him set up as the middle aged avuncular foil to Tom Cruise’s young gun when Cruise is a year older than him. Possibly Cruise is being kept in a vault full of frozen mercury in between movies.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Wonder Woman; it's eh, good, I guess

On balance, it’s a good thing that DC’s first non-awful movie is also their first one with a woman superhero and a woman director. It’s still a bit depressing that it doesn’t rise far above non-awful.

There’s a load of pointless quibbling to be had over whether Wonder Woman is a feminist icon, or just the same old superhero male crap, except in a skirt, and I’m not ready to wear myself out trying to make sense of which way that argument ought to go, or which side of it Wonder Woman the movie lands. In my opinion it makes its best points either way in the middle stretch. Themyscira does not make a huge amount of sense in any terms, and Wonder Woman visits Flanders rapidly degenerates into interchangeable super heroism and property damage. There’s a nice quiet bit in the middle where Wonder Woman - or Princess Diana - is trying to make sense of Edwardian London and the place a woman can have in it. It’s played for laughs - which makes a nice change in a DC movie all on its own - but still, it’s got some point to it which might even resonate today. I particularly liked the subtext for the first moment she hits London and says “It’s awful”. Yup, says Chris Pine’s character “It’s not for everyone.” Which would have made a pretty good UKIP slogan.

One of my least favorite things about Fast and Furious Six was that it casually schwacked Gal Gadot’s character. She wasn’t really adding very much, but there’s a certain zing to Gadot that made her character pop out a bit from the usual background of cars and stripperiffic costumes, and it was upsetting to see her chucked fatally off an aeroplane apparently to make one of the other characters distracted for the post credits scene. I wasn’t sure if she could act, but I thought she probably had enough in the tank for Wonder Woman. And at some points she does; at others it doesn’t quite land. There’s a moment near the end where she just gets cross and then gets serious about bouncing Ares’ head off the pavement, and I think it was supposed to land like this moment. But it doesn’t, because we haven’t had enough time to buy into the character in the same way, and Gal Gadot is simply not in Millie Bobby Brown’s class.

The thing which bugged me the whole way through is the incoherent attitude to war. The Amazons hate war, but spend their whole time preparing for it. Diana angsts constantly about how war is killing people, but she kills more people than anyone else in the movie. The Amazons on Themyscira are cut off entirely from the world, but somehow speak ALL the languages. And yet don’t have the same knowledge of anything else that the world is getting up to, such as machine guns. Nope, if war comes back, it better come back old school, with spears and bows, because that’s what the Amazons have planned for. Never in the history of conflict has anyone been quite so deeply prepared to fight the last war instead of the next one. Mind you, I can’t fault the preparation; it’s pointless, but elegant. In the few setpiece old-school fights we see, the Amazons are magnificent.

Other fun things; all the Amazons trying to do Israeli accents with varying degrees of success, because it was apparently easier to try to sync everyone else up to Gal Gadot’s accent than to get her a dialect coach who could get Gal Gadot to do an accent everyone else could match easily. The spectacle of a whole paradisical island cut off from reality and full of Israeli-sounding people getting ready for a war that’s never going to happen is a subtext all of its own, but I am so not going there.

Best fun thing of all; Chris Pine naked and embarassed, trying to explain what a wristwatch is and how it makes it easy to know when to do things, and Diana asking “And you let that little thing tell you what to do?” as if we’re still talking about a wristwatch. 

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean; Salazar's Revenge. Zombie ... everything


That, right there, is the movie reviewing itself. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has climbed so far up itself that sharks are jumping it. And not just any old sharks. Zombie sharks. That’s how far past its sell-by date POTC has got.
It’s hard to come up with anything to say which that picture doesn’t say better. One plus is that it’s the shortest POTC movie ever, though I guarantee you that it won’t feel like it, because it takes its own sweet time getting to what little point it’s got in play. There’s about a TV episode’s worth of plot beefed out with side quests and digressions and flashbacks. There is simultaneously - as always - way too much Jack Sparrow and not nearly enough of anything else. I’d always found Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner the most tedious part of the first three movies, but then they rolled out his son and suddenly Orlando Bloom seemed like the second coming of George Clooney. And Orlando Bloom actually shows up, so you can check the generations of the Turner family against each other.
Barbossa gets schwacked heroically saving the daughter he never knew he had, but POTC is worse than Fast and Furious when it comes to bringing people back from certain death (or better offers) so I assume that Barbossa will be back shortly. I hope he will, anyhow, since I’ve an unholy fondness for this. I admire a man who can say to no to Keira Knightley. Who is also back in the last minute of the movie, classing up the joint something wicked as she can’t help doing.
Jack survives everything, as of course he does. And from time to time he even earns his pay; there’s a scene with a guillotine which is wonderfully imaginative and works partly because Depp’s schtick is at its best when Jack is being terrified and bewildered. Just in case we get confused about that, it’s immediately followed by a scene with a botched hanging and our two juvenile leads and it’s just awful.
As is so often the case when a movie has cost more than 250 million dollars, you can see where the money went, but not why anyone thought it should. There’s a huge opening setpiece in which the Sparrow gang steals an entire bank and drags it through a small town. On the one hand, this is impossible; on the other hand the idea of dragging a vault’s been done properly in this; and on the third, most important hand, this took ten minutes and cost just what you’d think it would cost to destroy a fake town and it doesn’t advance the plot by an inch.
One thing I will say for it; somehow, Javier Bardem doesn’t feel as outrageously wasted as Salazar as Ian McShane did as Blackbeard. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a waste of his talent, but somehow it’s not as annoying. Possibly because I think that it’s always a shame when you have McShane on call and don’t just spend the whole movie letting him swear poetically at people he’s disappointed by. He’d have a lot to do in this movie.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Colossal; Monsters are among us

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Colossal had me with the poster, because Anne Hathaway smiling at me is enough even before you add Korean monsters. Then I read the reviews, and nothing could stop me; Korean monster movie mashed up with rom-com. Even if you get something like that wrong, it’s going to be interesting.

Colossal is more than interesting; it’s a good movie which also has something to say about something ordinary and horrible. There aren’t really giant scary monsters which stomp around cities crushing buildings, but there are way too many people who stomp around their houses crushing the people who love them, whether it’s with words or fists. And I don’t fool myself for a moment; a silly movie about monsters isn’t going to put an end to domestic violence, or even put much of a dent in it. The kind of person who comes away from a movie shaking their heads and hoping they never do those things is not the kind of person who does those things. The most you can hope for is that the closing message might just get some of the decent people to take one more step when they see it happen.

Still. It’s a good movie. Anne Hathaway is probably not a great actress, but she’s got charisma to burn and the guts to play against that charisma. Gloria is a mess, and the script doesn’t bother making her misunderstood; everyone but Gloria’s got Gloria’s number. It takes her half the movie to realise how messed up she is, and the other half to realise how messed up her choices in other people have been. And five glorious minutes at the end to do something about it.

One of the cleverest things the script does is get the gag out of the way as quickly as possible. By the time we’re forty minutes in, Gloria has figured out that she’s the monster terrorising Seoul. This is two kinds of good. Firstly, the audience figured this out from the poster, and who wants to spend the whole movie watching the cast catch up with the audience. Secondly, and much more importantly, it gives us the rest of the movie to see what she’s going to do with that information, and that’s much more interesting than spinning out the surprise. 

Men don’t come out of this well. The cast is tiny, and Anne Hathaway is the only woman. The men are variously idiots, bullies, idiots, or bullying idiots. It’s slightly ironic that one of the best dumb movies I’ve seen about a woman sorting herself out completely fails the Bechdel test.  It’s disappointing that Dan Stevens is only there to play a slightly less awful boyfriend, since The Guest has left me with unrealistic expectations of Dan Stevens; on the other hand, it’s cool that Dan Steven is willing to play a jerk in a good cause.

Above all, it’s a funny, curiously warm film about small town monsters and the possibility of getting beyond our bad impulses. Anne Hathaway makes it work well enough that I never once found myself wondering if anyone else would have been better. Since it’s not an ACTUAL Korean monster movie, I don’t imagine I need to worry about a remake with anyone else … 

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant needed to make up the ground lost in Prometheus, which is a tall order. Ridley Scott doesn’t have it in him to make a bad looking movie, but someone still has to write the damned thing, and it needs to make something approaching sense for the visuals to have any real point. Prometheus set out to explain something about the origin of yer ackshul aliens, and pretty much tripped over its dick, since the explanation didn’t make any sense and wrecked the continuity of the earlier good movies even if you somehow thought it did make sense. And the writers’ cunning ploy to mask the idiocy of the plot by making everyone on the screen an idiot didn’t really cover up anything.

Covenant’s job, apparently, was to paper over the cracks and somehow link these new movies into the canon. It’s worth recapping where Prometheus left off. Elizabeth Shaw has a very familiar looking alien spacecraft she doesn’t know how to fly, and an android head in a bag. And she sets off to find the mysterious engineers who presumably created all this embuggeration.

Fast forward a decade or two, and there’s a colony ship chugging along through space which picks up the universe’s weirdest distress signal - I think we can all agree that playing John Denver is a cry for help, but it’s not generally seen as functionally equivalent to a Mayday. Never mind, they turn the colony ship around to go take a look at what it might all be. Turns out, it’s the Engineers’ planet, and somehow Elizabeth Shaw found it, found a whole extra body to nail onto the loose head she had in the bag, and that the combo went completely nuts and annhilated the whole population of the planet with a souped up version of the same bug which made Prometheus such a fun festival. Spoilers, I know. It takes the crew of the Covenant most of the movie to figure this out, but time is short on the internet and I figure the word will be out by the time anyone reads this.

As wiping things out plans go, the notion seems faulty. The Engineers are star faring. They ought to be all over the place, not just on one planet, and if the colonies suddenly stopped getting news from home, you’d think twenty years would be time enough for some of them to come and take a poke around the ruins. But nope, the planet’s deserted. Nothing but plants to be seen. Because the pathogen from Prometheus kills anything with meat in it, as Michael Fassbender’s creepy android cheerily points out.

Speaking of Michael Fassbender, you get two for the price of one. He’s playing not one, but two androids. They are supposed to be different, but since one of them is way off the the left on the Lecter spectrum and the other is a taciturn idiot, it’s not as much of a stretch as an actor of Fassbender’s talent needs to showcase his art. In fact, he may have been a smidge more interesting in Assassin’s Creed, depending on whether you prefer him messing up a computer game, or a movie franchise nearly older than he is. Either way it’s sort of impressive that he’s in two SF movies in the space of a year which really don’t work. Covenant does waste fewer Oscar winners, however.

Anyhow, the whole monstrous stitch stuff together bit of the movie boils down to this; David has spent some long span of years messing about with the Engineers’ creepy pathogen trying to come up with the perfect implementation of the monster, and the hapless crew of Covenant are his perfect petri dish so that he can finally get them looking just like they do in the very first movie. So the villain was people all along. Well, robots, and people made the robots, and you know what, it’s not remotely as clever as it thinks it is. Because no matter how much you buy into the notion that David designed the perfect creature of Alien, there’s still a huge hole where there needs to be an explanation of how the setup for Alien comes about. How does the bummer ending of Covenant turn into a crashed alien spacecraft full of eggs on a howling desolation which is definitely not any of the planets we’ve seen so far in these new dumber movies?

Presumably the third movie in this effort will try to answer this. But the question is, why bother? Dan O’Bannon took Giger’s drawings and a half memory of AE van Vogt’s novels and hashed out a perfectly good back story for the creatures nearly forty years ago, and Scott had the excellent good sense to realise that there was no need to explain it then. Nothing’s changed in the meantime.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Train to Busan; metaphor for what?

It’s a truism to comment that horror movies are always about the things which society can’t find another way to talk about. But that’s easier to puzzle out when you know how a society works in the first place. When South Korea makes a zombie movie, what - as Talleyrand might have said - did they mean by it?

Which is not to say that you need to know what they meant by it. It will still work if you don’t. It’s fast zombies versus clueless unarmed civilians on a train. The only thing that the civilians have got going for them is that zombies haven’t figured out how doors work. On the other hand, they have figured out - kind of - how glass works, inasmuch as they can see through it and if they get enough weight pushing against it, it will break. 

And those are the rules of engagement, pretty much. The humans have brains, and they know how to work a door handle. The zombies have rage, and numbers. The drama, as opposed to the thrills, comes from the uneasy truth that brains can be a problem just as much as they can be a solution. Brains can be greedy, panicky or just plain dumb. Brains can be too smart for their own good. Brains can see problems that aren’t really there. We get a lot of that, and the zombies get a lot of snacks.

This is one of those movies where it’s a bad idea to get too attached to anyone. And since it’s a South Korean movie, that includes the adorable moppet. The Host taught us that moppets are fair game in Korea, not like Hollywood. In Hollywood, if there’s a kid, the kid is going to make it even if no-one else does. In Korea, they eat dogs and schwack moppets. These guys are not like westerners.

Which brings me back to trying to figure out what this thing looked like to its original audience. South Korea has spent nearly seventy years with an increasingly insane next door neighbour. In principle, they’re in favour of uniting the two Koreas; in practice they’re uneasily aware that 70 years of craziness, famine, and more craziness have made North Korea a place so different from South Korea that they don’t even really speak the same language any more. Unification would involve 25 million hungry people with no idea how to live in South Korea’s world and no reason to stay where they are.

There’s no way that this kind of worry isn’t rattling through a Korean audience’s mind when they watch Train to Busan, but it’s hard to know how they match it up with what’s happening. The zombies are the result of a corporate experiment gone wrong, which is probably an echo of Korean unease about the way the chaebol system dominates their lives. (all K-Horror movies I’ve seen ground their monster in either commerce or the American occupation, or if possible both). The infection is rapid, and overwhelming; within minutes of being bitten you’re another zombie roaring and lurching after the remaining normal humans so that you can hunt them down and eat them. Is that just modern fast zombie lore, or is there a subtext I can’t pick up? And how much of the human dumbness we see is a comment on things which Korean society doesn’t like about itself? There’s a lot of obvious dislike of capitalism (the most odious character in the movie is a COO, and the main protagonist is a fund manager whose job is his evil side), yet there’s a continuing thread of respect for certain kinds of authority - the kind of authority represented by middle-ranking guys trying to do their job decently. The nearest thing in the movie to an uncomplicated hero is the train driver, who’s terrified and yet keeping it together without any flash.

As a movie, even for someone who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on in Korea, Train to Busan gets the job done. It’s scary, and thrilling, and there’s enough depth to the character that it matters when yet another one of them gets chopped down by bad luck, bad karma or bad thinking (the COO is bad to the bone that way). And there are moments where they really get their money’s worth out of the zombies. There’s not a lot of gore, but there’s a lot of imagination in coming up with new ways to make the zombies into a menace that’s just out of reach. Naturally there’s talk of a remake in English. I think I’d prefer a world where they spent the money on helping us understand the original better.

Bill James: Harpur & Iles

I’ve just spent most of the reading time of the last six weeks catching up on the adventures of Harpur and Iles and for that matter Ember and Shale, and it was one of those things where I couldn’t really stop and at the same time wondered why I was pressing on. The last time I kept going when so much nothing was happening was when I watched several hours of Big Brother live. When I did that, it was because I’d been conditioned by years of movies and TV to think that if nothing happened for several minutes it was only so that the real surprise would be a big jolt. So the surpassing dullness of Big Brother kept me watching thinking “Any minute now.” Hours later I realised I was watching a new form of TV, and I’ve stayed away from it ever since.

With Harpur & Iles, there should have been a nagging warning in the back of my brain. I used to buy those books as they came out, something which got more and more inconvenient and expensive the longer the series of books ran. At first they were Penguin paperbacks and you could even find them in Greek bookshops, which is where I found the first one. By 2006, they were limited run hardbacks and the only way to find them at all was on the internet. So I just didn’t buy the next one, or the one after that, and so on. At the end of March it occurred to me to wonder what had been happening to Bill James, and I discovered there’d been ten more books, all available on Kindle. Now, what I should have thought was something on the lines of “It’s been a decade, why do you even care?”, and if I’d had to think about ten physical books and the postage, and where I’d keep them after I’d read them … But it was Kindle, and they were cheap, so I just went and bought them all.

And I am not the wiser of it all. Because nothing’s happening. And it’s happening in an incredibly repetitive way. Everyone’s locked in place, for book after book, having the same conversations and doing nothing. And the conversations have a weird sameyness, no matter who’s talking; they’re all speaking in a strange mixture of formalism and ungrammatical slang, as if everyone in the nameless city had the same, completely demented, English teacher. It stops being clever, then it stops being funny, and then it starts getting in the way. Maybe if you’re not reading ten of them one after another.

I’d probably let all of that slide, but there’s one over-arching piece of weirdness which makes the stasis even harder to stay with. The first book in this series was published 32 years ago, and there’s been one every year since then. No-one has aged a day. Harpur still has two teenage daughters, just as he did when we met him first. He’s still a Detective Chief Superintendent. The world hasn’t stood still; Harpur in the recent books lives in a world with smart phones. It’s just that he, and his city, live in a bubble where no-one ages or learns anything. In the early going of the series, there was a fair bit of turnover, particularly among the criminal masterminds, but twenty years ago in my real world Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale rose to the top of their gangs and they’ve mooched along in uneasy partnership every since. 

And there are so many ways in which nothing happens. Nothing major changes; everyone is the same age and has the same worries and grievances. No-one’s position changes; any time anything appears which might threaten the status quo, it fizzles out. And even where the fizzling involves death and violence, the violence happens off-stage. We never see the action. We see the characters talk about what might happen, or think about what might happen, and then the story jumps a little into the non-future and the characters talk inconclusively about the aftermath of the action. And even the conversations go nowhere; Harpur and Iles are forever having conversations which loop around with neither one of them answering the other’s questions. I think it’s supposed to be wry, but it gets tiresome if you read as much of it in one big run as I did.

I’ve often said that I read detective stories not because of the story, but because I like the company of the characters. In a way Bill James has found a way to stretch that idea past my personal breaking point; there’s nothing but the characters. But if they’re just spinning their wheels for decades at a time …