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…” 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Despicable M3; ever diminishing circles

The whole Despicable Meatgrinder is a lesson in diminishing returns. The first movie was great fun, the second was kind of meh with moments of whimsy, and Minions was an almost inevitable letdown. And now we swing into a third Gru movie, and it’s plain that the tank is dry. It’s a short movie, and somehow still doesn’t feel packed. In a way, that’s all to the good, since it doesn’t get enough time to wear out its welcome. 

The whole enterprise is built on three key building blocks; Gru, the girls, and the Minions. Gru is fun when he’s being mean, and even more fun when he’s trying to be mean and being tripped up by occasional kindly impulses. Despicable Me 2 had Gru being a good guy all the time, and that turned out not to be fun. For the third movie, they fire him from the Anti-Villain League, but disappointingly he doesn’t return to evil. When Gru isn’t being wicked, the girls don’t have enough to do, and neither do the Minions. Now, giving the Minions too much to do never ends well; they wreck movies with the same predictability that they wreck evil plans. But giving them nothing much to do is just as bad.

With Gru staying out of the villainy business, he fires the Minions, and they spend the rest of the movie blundering in and out of setpieces which have no real consequences for anyone else, as if they’re in their own tiny pointless movie which just happens to be camping in the middle of the minor diversion which is the main attraction. So they win a talent competition in a way that gets them all thrown in jail, and then they orchestrate a jailbreak after taking over the whole prison. That left me scratching my head a bit; on the one hand, it’s weird behaviour for Minions to go into business for themselves instead of finding a big villain to cosy up to, especially when they’ve got a whole jail to choose from, and on the other hand, if you’ve got the whole prison running just the way you want it, why would you even bother breaking out?

Back when they made Despicable Me 2, I was saying that the third movie ought to be Gru turning back to the dark side; they couldn’t quite being themselves to do that, so instead they’ve magicked up a long lost twin brother to turn villainous on his behalf. This is not the right way to go, but it’s a more interesting villain than they one they hung the movie off. Balthazar Bratt would have made a great pre-credits scene, but he’s just not funny enough to carry even the medium sized chunk of movie he’s given. I’m not sure that Dru would have been any great improvement, but Gru is at his best failing to cope with family, so it would have had that going for it.

The movie ends on a sequel hook, which is pretty much the movie they should have made instead of this one; Gru’s long lost brother Dru, abetted by the minions, snaffles all of Gru’s old villain kit and goes into business as a super villain. I’m not optimistic. I think they ought to switch the whole game around, and have Margo finally wake up to her adopted dad’s line of work. I reckon Margo, Edith and Agnes would make a perfect gang. Not that that’s open to negotiation. Some things in the Despicable universe are immutable. As Gru says when Dru starts telling Margo just how grown up she’s looking “Margo is twelve, and she will always be twelve.” 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Spiderman Homecoming; Shoulda been Vultureman

There’s a great pre-credits scene in Spiderman: Homecoming which sets up the villain for the movie, and Michael Keaton’s put-upon contractor is so wonderfully fed up that I turned to John and said “I want this to be the whole movie."

Which would have been great, probably, but it turns out that the movie we got is probably the best Marvel movie so far that wasn’t Deadpool. Astonishingly, despite having six writers, it’s that rare thing, a well written movie. The characters are funny and make sense, and the plot, for once, doesn’t involve destroying the whole world. That wonderful downbeat opening sets the tone of the rest of the movie; there’s a whole world full of superheroes, and they’re just a huge pain in the ass for everyone else.

I’ve talked before about how the endless raising of the stakes for the Marvel universe just makes the movies more and more boring, because the stunts and the need for all the characters leaves so little room for people. Spiderman leans right into that. They skip the origin story, because by this stage, who in audience isn’t going to know where Spiderman comes from? If that’s something you don’t have some vague sense of, you’re watching some other movie. Why waste time on it? They skip the end of the world story. They can’t quite get past the need for a big stunt in the middle, but even that stunt feels like they’re going through the motions. Of course you can’t cut a ferry in half and then not have it sink immediately. But at least it’s just the one ferry, and it’s not floating over an entire city threatening to crush it or destroy the whole world. For the rest of the time, Spiderman is dealing with small problems, and rather wonderfully he’s getting it wrong a lot of the time and struggling with the rest of it. 

And don’t even get me started on his personal life, which makes his efforts at being a superhero look pretty sorted. Tom Holland’s as connvincing as a teenager as anyone can be at 20, but one of the things he sells best is that you can be smart and intermittently charming and have no clue in the wide earthly world that people like you. He does teenage obliviousness so well that I was nearly as shocked as he was when he was able to ask someone out and get a tentative yes despite being the star of the movie.

Well, kind of the star. Robert Downey Jr is there, effortlessly using up all the oxygen in the room whenever he shows up, and when that’s not happening, Michael Keaton’s Vulture is putting in the hours, just another working stiff who’s turned to the dark side to pay his mortgage in a world that doesn’t care about working stiffs or even notice what they’re up to. Every time the action shifts back to his black market warehouse I remembered that I wanted a whole movie about low-rent villains scraping a living off salvaged leftovers from the apocalyptic battles which the Avengers inflict on everything they ever see.

It’s a movie which works by being resolutely small scale, and making the small scale work. There are no bit players. There’s a scene where a kid walks through a bathroom wordlessly disrupting what’s supposed to be a heart to heart between two named characters, but damnit that actor’s face tells the whole story of how weird it is to be just trying to do your business in the bathroom with that kind of nonsense going on. There’s another wordless moment where a black character doesn’t want a tour of the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. “Oh I don’t think so…” her hapless teacher begins, and the camera cuts to a black security guard making a silent gesture that says all of “Oh yes it was” and a whole lot more. And there’s all the jokes at the expense of the big movies; “Captain America - oh, he’s probably a war criminal now.” The director and the writers saw the power of tiny things, and the way that they make big things far clearer than wide angle shots of the big things ever could. If only this idea could catch on.

Baby Driver; it's terrible, really, but go anyhow

Looking forward to things is the worst. The less you know about something, the more it can surprise you. The more time you spend telling yourself how great something is going to be, the more you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And so it came to pass that I was vaguely disappointed with what’s widely claimed to be the best bubble gum movie of the year so far. By the time I got to see it, Baby Driver was going to have cure cancer, balance the national debt and retrospectively turn Suicide Squad into a decent movie. Probably just as well I didn’t leave it another week or I’d have been demanding it brought peace to the Middle East [1].

Instead, it’s just a good movie with a lot of music. And lots of acting. And lots of good dialogue. Although I know I’m supposed to like Baby best, I was torn between Jon Hamm’s bank robber and Kevin Spacey’s criminal mastermind. Each of them is the actor playing to their strengths, but they’ve been given a character who makes sense as a person. In their own minds, they’re just good guys trying to do their best in a world which owes them things they just HAVE to take. Also present in the movie; Jamie Foxx, playing a guy who really really needs to get a huge spike through his face. Great news, it happens, but not anything like as soon as it ought to have. Ideally it would have happened in a deleted “Previously on Baby Driver” scene. In a movie where most of the bad guys are somehow likeable despite everything, Jamie Foxx really stands out from the crowd. It would have been much more interesting to give him some nuance.

Fun stuff; Edgar Wright is having a great time with his stunt and steadicam budget. The music works well. The car chases are almost as good as I hoped they’d be, though there are few moments as straightforwardly pleasing as the early bit where Baby plays the Three Card trick on a busy freeway with actual cars. There’s a blissful moment when the viewer catches up with the plan, and the movie struggles to be that clever with cars afterwards. Still good, but not genius.

Best of all, it’s a film that for all of its apparent silliness is very grounded. Reality catches up with everyone, and no-one gets to ride off into the sunset. Which means that Baby Driver has a very satisfying ending. It’s honest, and it makes perfect sense, and it gives the characters pretty much what they deserve. There’s already word of a sequel, but don’t hold your breath. It took Wright more than a decade to put this heist together. 

Perhaps the best hint as to how well written this thing is that Kevin Spacey gets so many funny lines that they spilled out of the movie and into the trailer. He had so many good patter scenes that they could literally silence one of them in the movie itself and throw the dialogue into the trailer. 

 

[1] Spoiler. Peace has been brought to the Middle East tonnes of times. They always shoot it.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel; it's the quiet ones you have to watch

My Cousin Rachel is another one of those movies which exposes my abysmal ignorance of older pop culture. Daphne Du Maurier used to be medium big in the world of novels, straddling literature and popular fiction well enough that grown up people read her, but punks like me also snapped up each novel as it came out. So I ought to have at least a passing familiarity with her books, and be sitting through the movie adaptations knowing just what’s coming, and simply grading them on how well they get to a destination I already know.

Which is what John was doing, having seen a stage adaptation - which he preferred - a couple of years back. I was sitting there completely unequipped by comparison. Was Rachel going to make it? Were the police going to pounce? When was this thing even set? I still don’t know the answer to that last question. The costumes could be anything from the Regency to early Victorian, depending on the extent to which you want to believe that people in rural Cornwall just kept wearing clothes long past their sell by date. But thinking about it, it seems to me that even the latest time zone would still be before there was such a thing as police even to pounce. Not that they do.

Rachel Weisz makes a pretty good Rachel - at least to my mind - but she’s hampered by the fact that Phillip is both an arsehole and a character whose motivation is all over the place. There ought to be a tension in the movie between the possibility that Rachel is a manipulative demon and the possibility that she’s a misunderstood woman trying to make her way in a man’s world. But twenty minutes in Philip’s company is enough to make you side with Rachel either way. If she’s a harpy, great. Philip needs harpy-ing something wicked. Which makes it all the more bewildering that the other female character in the piece seems so taken with him. Clearly Louise doesn’t get out much. It sits oddly with her clearheadedness about absolutely everything else. Louise is sorted. You’d think that would make her smart enough to run a mile from Philip’s man-child. Still, I see that Holliday Granger is going to be playing Robin Ellacott in the upcoming BBC adapation of the Cormoran Strike books, and that fills me with not so much excitement as the calm reassurance that Robin’s got someone who can do the part properly.

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.