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.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Red Sparrow; this is going to be SO banned in Russia

Red Sparrow is the nastiest movie I’ve not quite watched in quite a while, and probably the nastiest thing I’ve ever watched with so many Oscar nominees in it. Not the worst thing, since you can’t throw Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Joel Edgerton and Mary Louise Parker at a problem and still get a completely worthless movie, bur definitely the nastiest. Partly it’s the relentless horribleness of all the characters, and partly it’s the gratuitous torture which keeps cropping up. The thing about the torture is that it’s very unpleasant while not making any sense, but the whole movie has that problem. It may jsut be that putting Irons and Rampling into the same movie just breaks reality.

Vladimir Putin was probably going to hate this no matter what happened, since it makes Russia look like a miserable slum full of murderous sociopaths, but just in case the script wasn’t enough, they cast Matthias Shoenaerts as the most horrible villain in the whole piece and went out of their way to make him look as much as possible like a younger Putin. He winds up getting shot in the head, and the only thing bad about that is that it doesn’t look like it hurt anything like enough. Lots of other Russian men get murdered horribly, and they all had it coming. This movie doesn’t like Russian men. Or Russian women, much. Or anyone. I think it likes Jennifer’s mum, and we have to try to like Jennifer because she loves her mother, but even with Jennifer Lawrence turned up to 11, Domenika’s hard to like, or even understand.

It’s a weird time to be watching a movie like this. Men being horrible to women because they’re sexist exploitative pigs hits a nerve just at the moment. A movie about women being trained to exploit those tendencies might look like a counterpoint, but since they’re only doing it to meet the needs of even worse men for power and money, it’s really not. Throw in the fact that Russian espionage is back in the news in the worst way just now, and the whole thing’s an endless parade of headline bait, if only you could bring yourself to care what happened.

In one way, I did care what was happening; J-Law’s always got a kind of vulnerability to her, and when the movie is staying quiet, there’s an air of creeping menace and exploitation which left me on edge about what might happen next. Then the movie turned the yecch meter up to eleven in the back half, and turned into narrative gibberish with gory distractions. A character gets tortured to death off screen and left in a bathtub with bits hanging off her in all directions for no apparently rational reason. And then there’s a big torture scene where Joel Edgerton (playing the world’s worst CIA agent) gets tied up and part skinned by a psycho. On the one hand, we've been told that offing CIA agents is a bad idea that the President, so how is this suddenly a thing that the KG-Used-Top-Be is doing? On the other hand, Domenika has set this up, joins in, and then switches sides in the middle of the misery to kill the torturer. As long as she was going to do that, why wait? She could have dropped the bad guy at literally any moment from the beginning of the scene, and probably got a lot less cut up the earlier she went for it. There must have been reasons for this, but they’re never explained, never even hinted at.

In the last few minutes of the movie, everything is supposedly wrapped up with a set of flashbacks which show that Domenika’s been playing a long game to nobble her tormentors and secure her own safety. All I will say is it’s not this.

So there you go. It’s horrible, but at least it doesn’t make any sense. Yay, Red Sparrow, a movie which made the real world news seem like more fun.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Black Panther: The Socio-Economics of Wakanda

Black Panther has been a comforting success for everyone. It’s intelligent and crowd-pleasing, and white people liked it, and it had a postive message. If real world history is any guide to anything, it will be followed in short order by a brash white hateful movie which disrespects women and thinks it’s the best thing that ever happened to cinema, but given that this is Hollywood, we won’t even notice a return to the usual services and the orange and blue colour scheme.

But I come not to praise the movie, which is - fine, I guess, by Marvel standards - but to unpick the inexplicable mess which is the Wakandan economy, and the weird way in which it continues the Marvel movie policy that it’s best just to leave the running of the world to an out of touch elite and accept that collateral damage to everyone else is for the best really. I do this on tiptoe, of course, since everyone is delighted with the positive picture of Africa Wakanda gives, and there was lots of input from African voices. Which I am not. But still.

First up, there’s Wakanda’s system of governance, which is hereditary monarchy, tempered by occasional breaches in the succession by way of trial by combat. So, ya got five tribes that don’t have all that much in common culturally, and they’re governed by one tribe. And any time the hereditary ruler of that tribe shows signs of not being able to kill his own weight in rivals, he can be replaced by anyone willing to chance a fight to the death. That seems like a custom which over a few hundred years would lead to whatever the fancy word is for government by homicidal maniacs. Because the great thing about homicidal maniacs is that they’re not very thoughtful people, but they are quite good at homicide. Which thoughtful people generally prefer to avoid. And Wakanda’s had a long time for the system to show its flaws, which makes it all the more surprising that their current batch of rulers seem to be auditioning to succeed late period Morgan Freeman rather than early period Morgan Freeman.

And you could choke that down, if the system of governance had a king whose role was largely ceremonial, with the real work being done by smart compromisers. Not so much, it turns out. The king has a ruling council of elders and that’s about it. Thing is, there’s a reason why you don’t see that system much in the modern world. It doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work well enough to avoid being beaten down by messy and complicated things like democracy. 

But, but, but, but, you squeak. Wakanda has unlimited reserves of vibranium. With such bounteous plenty, everyone is happy and governance is simple. People, unfortunately, are even simpler. Look at the world around you, which is filled with plenty my parents couldn’t have even imagined. Is it evenly distributed? Is it even vaguely likely to be evenly distributed in a country governed by the guy who’s able to punch his rivals to death? Exactly. 

And from this we move to vibranium, which is rare, yet plentiful, and can do anything. By mechanisms which are impossible to explain to an audience. It’s simultaneously a source of energy and an impervious metal and somehow a healing force. At one point a character dismisses a question about magic by saying “It’s technology”. It’s not. If you tear up the laws of thermodynamics, it’s magic. Magic would honestly make more sense. 

Wakanda uses the power of vibranium to cut itself off completely from the world and live in a paradisical alternate Africa full of skyscrapers and - wait. Are those mud huts around the city? With people happily pounding cassava into paste? Why would anyone do that in a technocratic wonder state? Are they part of the cover story, just working a rotation to help out with the illusion that Wakanda’s just another third world country full of poverty? Nope, the movie seems to make you want to think they’re having fun and that living in mud huts at subsistence level is a lifestyle choice. 

Oh yes, now the bit which even the movie tries to grapple with. Wakanda has to hide from the world because otherwise the world would come and stomp it to take its technology. So despite having the kind of tech and power which could change Africa, and probably the world, they hide. In the movie, this is presented as a moral conflict. In the real world, it would be an actual war. There are only two ways to have that kind of power. Either you have enough of it to hold the world at bay when it finds out about you, or you don’t. Because the world will come and find you. And if you don’t have enough for everyone, you don’t have enough to stop the biggest bully on the block from taking as much as he wants. And you’d think a country with a system of rule by bullies could have figured that one out.

There’s also the problem of what that kind of technological change would do to a culture. Wakanda’s had the same stupid system of government and tribal division despite centuries of technological progress which far outstrips anything in the real world. Here in reality, we’re struggling to deal with the impact of smartphones on democracy, but Wakanda just keeps on trucking despite tech that makes smartphones seem quaint.

And there’s the economy. Which I cannot understand. Wakanda doesn’t trade with the world; this is part of their hiding policy. So how does the economy even work? Is the place entirely self sufficient? What do they eat? We don’t really see crop fields, but then again we barely see them eat. Maybe eating’s optional when you’re that advanced. It’s hard to know. But even if you buy into the notion that Wakanda is a fully working version of the island where everyone exists by taking in each other’s washing, there’s the question of where they get the money that they need for things like running espionage operations in the real world and buying whole apartment blocks and having a mission to the UN. Those things need dolla-dolla, so there has to be some trade.

And why does all of this matter anyhow? It’s just nonsense economics in a movie which is largely nonsense. It matters, at least to me, because of the way that people have seized on this movie as a powerful message about African aspiration. Look, there can be positive role models, there can be black superheroes. 

Yes, yes, there can. But only in a world where nothing else makes any sense. Black people can only succeed in a world of magical nonsense. And even then, they can only succeed by acting just like rich entitled white folks always have, by hoarding their goodies to themselves, fostering elitism, and then grudgingly doling out a small share of it to whatever cause suits thir whims, entirely on their own terms and with no accountability to anyone else.

BELATED EDIT: There’s another side to this. The movie is amazingly quiet about the way in which whitey made the real world. By which I mean, made the world terrible for everyone but whitey. The only person who really gets a chance to make any points about that is Eric the Killmonger, who a) doesn’t have a market friendly name b) works for a white South African sociopath for no readily apparent reason and c) is the main antagonist, and thus wrong in the movie’s scheme of things. So add that to the list of magical nonsense necessary for black success; a world without imperialist colonisers.

Having said that, the villains are fun people who make a lot of sense. So clearly they have to die, and die they do.