Friday, 28 February 2014

Hummingbird: homeless Stath goes London

I tend to watch the Stath in ad hoc double bills when his movies get cheap on DVD and I buy a couple at once. So this follows hard on the heels of Parker, a nice straightforward heist’n’revenge story which didn’t stretch the Stath at all and was all the better for it. Hummingbird has ideas, unfortunately, what with the Stath being a homeless veteran struggling with PTSD and getting his act together briefly for one summer before realising that he’s less trouble for everyone drunk and on the streets than he is with his head on straight. Think of it as a more serious take on the preposterous homeless narrative of last year’s Safe, replacing the Chinese moppet McGuffin with a fey Polish nun who runs a soup kitchen. Which is to say, it’s almost as stupid as Safe, it’s just trying to pretend it’s not.

Hummingbird started out being called Redemption; I don’t know why they changed the name, but I’ve ruled out the idea that it was because they wanted to be subtle about the movie’s message. It’s explained so carefully that I was expecting an on screen title crawl at the end going back over the main points in a Powerpoint presentation. Instead it ends in a bit of fake ambiguity as the Stath vanishes back into the faceless homeless crowds of London - or maybe he doesn’t at all, since he’s being watched from the sky by surveillance drones.

You may have been wondering if any of these things are bad: ubiquitous surveillance, homelessness, lynching civilians, PTSD, the war in Afghanistan, people trafficking, prostitution, pimping and sex slavery, sadism, drug dealing and big city trading. If so, Hummingbird is the movie you’ve been waiting for; it sorts all those questions out once and for all with a rushed scene here and a rushed scene there. If, on the other hand, you’ve already made your mind up on most of those points, you’re going to be sitting there wondering if any of them are going to be explored in a way that’s anything like as deep as this movie thinks it is. Hummingbird is a bit like someone you’ve met in a pub about ten minutes after he’s realised that something is terrible in the world and a lifetime before he’s figured out why it happened or what needs to be done about it; you find yourself nodding and moving down the bar and towards the door, because you know you’re going to get nothing useful out of the conversation, and neither is he.

And of course, by being so serious about all these things, and so serious about how little the his character can really change in the world without making everything worse, Hummingbird takes all the fun out of watching the Stath loping around in perfectly cut suits and beating the snot out of people. That’s just a waste of a natural resource.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Lego Movie: it's a precision interlocking brick recreational product

The Lego Movie made back its budget in the opening weekend. At one point its RottenTomatoes rating was 100%; even now it’s 96%, higher than most of this year’s Oscar nominees. Considering that most movies based on best selling toys are less fun than shoving the toys up your arse during an earthquake in an acid factory….

It’s a pretty good movie, which is why I’m not going to say much about it. It’s fun, and for once it’s a movie that’s as clever as it thinks it is. The visual effects are smart and often spectacular, and I liked it that everything was done with bricks, even smoke effects. Of course there are pop culture references, but they’re funny. And of course it’s self-aware, but it’s nicely bitter about it. The plot is pretty much Toy Story crossed with The Matrix, but they’ve got a hard headed spin on the whole idea of special ones come to save everyone and everything. Look, just go and see it; for once it’s one of those things where everyone is doing it and they’re not wrong. Just come late enough to miss the trailers; because it’s a kids movie, they’re trailing such wonderful things as Rio 2 and the breathtakingly unnecessary Avatarzan which someone somewhere has decided we all have to get.

I wanted to have a good refreshing rant at this point about how The Lego Movie is all very well, but for all the messages about imagination and master-building, the reality is that there’s less and less scope for imagination in Lego every year. Most of the sets which come out these days seem to be tied into movies, and you get a box of parts which lets you build something you’ve seen in Star Wars or Indiana Jones or whatever. And it all has to be just so, which did leave me scratching my head a bit at the way the movie wants you to think that just following the instructions is a bad idea.

I used to worry more about the way that the bricks were getting ever more specialised, so that no matter what you wanted to build there’d turn out to be a special brick which would handle just that problem; no imagination or creativity required from the user at all. But I’ve watched my nephews do whatever the hell they feel like with the specialist bricks and I realise that I’m just an old grouch on that one.

I still can’t shake the annoyance with the movie tie-ins. It’s great marketing, but somehow I don’t want Lego to be something that markets itself.

Which swivels me back into the movie, in a way. The villain of the piece is Lord (later President) Business, and Fox News has been having a gratifying case of the vapours about the anti-business message of the movie. Yet for all the vapours, Lego is a business; the movie’s the most fun I’ve had watching an advert in years, but it’s an advert. And Lord Business gets rehabilitated in the end, showing that we can all live happily after in capitalism. As if.

And yet. It’s fun watching them rip the piss out of Batman, and I could watch a whole movie which was just Liam Neeson’s Bad Cop growling at things (that will be next week, come to think of it, if I go and see Non-Stop). And Unikitty practically deserves her own movie as well; I loved the way that she yammered out about rainbows and kittens and happy thoughts and then suddenly broke character to show the raging monster I’ve learned to assume is ALWAYS lurking behind those happy-clappy cheerleader facades.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Adrian McKinty; the Sean Duffy trilogy

I can’t figure Adrian McKinty out. I don’t know whether he’s a good writer who doesn’t do enough redrafts or a bad writer with ideas above his talents. I don’t know if he’s writing thrillers which happen to have grounded characters, or trying to write reflective books about Nordor which happen to have thriller elements. Perhaps most annoyingly, Nordor being what it is, I can’t figure out which side of the divide he’s writing from, which frustrates the bit of me which would like to mark him out of ten for his ability to imagine the other side. 

It didn’t bother me hugely when I was reading his Michael Forsythe books but the Sean Duffy ones are solidly dug into the notion of a North Antrim Catholic working for the RUC in the early eighties. That’s not quite up there with a story about a black Klansman, but it’s not something where you can lash into it on the “write what you know” principle. 

Well, whichever bit of it he had to do from outside his own direct experience, I never found myself saying hang on, that’s just not how it works. McKinty gets his made up characters right. The bigger picture and the quality of the writing don’t always live up to the characters, but I rushed through all three books in a couple of weeks, curious about what Duffy was going to do next to ruin his own life.

For me, the good bit of all three books is the sense of Duffy as a cop who’s smart without being actually all that good at being a cop. He’s like the anti Dirty Harry; smart, violent, insubordinate, but he doesn’t get results. And it’s not being played for laughs; he’s just stuck in a system where smart isn’t enough, and everyone is too connected for anyone to be brought to book. Even when he figures out whodunnit, he can’t figure out whattodoaboutit.

The bad bits; the body count’s ridiculous. There are too many scenes of utter mayhem in the books, gunfire and body parts all around and Duffy just about making it out of the fiasco intact. The first book climaxes with him taking down an entire loyalist hit-squad, and it’s ridiculous coming on the heels of the more grounded mooching around the scene of the crime which has led up to it. The other not-great bit is the way McKinty navigates the real world. He’s chosen to put all three books into the frame of real problems of the 1980s; the first blends the Hunger Strikes and the rise of moles within the Army Council (there’s a waaaaffffffer-thin pastiche of Stakeknife which feels like it was lawyered to the point of unreadability); the second hovers around the edges of the DeLorean Motor Company, and the third - which is mostly a locked room mystery - is bookended at one side with the Maze mass breakout and the other with the Brighton Hotel Bombing. Real world means real people, and McKinty doesn’t do as well with the real people as he does with his own characters. 

Equally, the exposition about what’s going on in the real world can get pretty clunky; Duffy breaks the hell out of the fourth wall explaining what’s happening around him and who was doing what and when. It’s at its most noticeable in the first book, and I found myself wishing that he’d been able to find a way to drag the details in more unobtrusively; every time Duffy throws a footnote into the middle of a sentence, it kicks you out of the book you wanted to read, and into a piece of bad journalism. And it’s not that McKinty can’t do subtle; his portrait of early eighties Carrickfergus - where he grew up (and thus either grew up super-confident or very damned scared) - catches the feel of Nordor, the grey moral compromise of a place damned by the impossibility of practical compromise.

Parker; The Stath wears a wig

Parker is a Jason Statham movie through and through, with the only surprising element being the grey toupee he wears for the first few scenes. Other than that, the checklist is wonderfully complete; there’s an avuncular older guy who’s got his back, there’s unreliable villains who excite his irritation and need to get got, there’s a chick to be rescued, there’s a bunch of bone crunching set pieces where the Stath uses the scenery to pulverise the ungodly, and there’s the Stath implacably wisecracking his way through all the obstacles.

Surprisingly, it’s also a very respectful adaptation of the Richard Stark book that it’s based on. In the past, adaptations of Stark have tended to focus on the implacable revenge bits of the books, and they’ve missed out on an important part of the books; as Parker rolled from one disaster to the next, the principal variety in the books was the cast of new characters for him to rescue or be let down by. Unlike any other adaptation I’ve seen, Parker doesn’t just show us the awful villains who Parker is about to crush, but also the semi-decent people who Parker absent-mindedly helps along the way. Jennifer Lopez might not have been the best choice for the down on her luck estate agent who becomes Parker’s temporary ally, but she does OK, and the movie takes the time to show us a character so fenced in that Parker’s looking like a good option when he rolls into town with the world’s least plausible Texan impersonation.

Stark needed to flesh out his supporting cast because he’d intentionally made his main character a cipher. The Stath is inspired casting for a cipher, because the Stath isn’t really acting. Parker in this movie is just like his character in The Transporter, less the car. He be doing crimes, but he has standards. Rules. Not quite ethics, because, after all, he’s taking things that don’t belong to him and without all that much thought to whether the holiday maker whose car he just stole for a getaway might have needed that car to get home, for example. And that, as they say, is even before you consider his propensity for straight up murdering folks he doesn’t cotton to. It’s a persona which the Stath has got down pat, and why mess with it?

About as far as he needs to go is put on a wig. Or an accent, though never both at once, because that would be way too method.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Monuments Men; It's "Kelly's Heroes meets the Antiques Roadshow", if Kelly's Heroes didn't show up

About ten years ago Hollywood made an adaptation of Enemy at the Gates, a grand survey of the Battle of Stalingrad. Sensibly they decided that no one movie could possibly do justice to the epic meat grinder of Stalingrad, so they picked one anecdote which takes up only a few pages in the book, and made that the centre of the movie, with the hell of Stalingrad reduced to an appalling background (and an astonishing big budget opening scene). In an inspired move, they hired Bob Hoskins to play Khrushchev, which couldn’t quite make up for casting Jude Law as the hero of the piece, but at least it meant that whenever we cut away to the politics, there was something to look forward to.

What George Clooney needed, and didn’t have, was that same insight. The Monuments Men has a cast to kill for, and doesn’t give any of them enough to do. If only George Clooney had fewer friends, he might have been forced to make the movie focus on one or two characters and a single compelling story; instead it bumbles around the edges of the end of WWII, trying desperately to inject some sense of hazard and urgency to the quest to find and preserve thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis. The terrible thing is that the moments of wannabe high drama lack any punch; the best bits are the low key moments of character comedy. The movie’s best moment is arguably when Clooney’s team trips over one of the masterminds behind the organised looting; it’s not so much the slow build to his unmasking, but the brisk double take as the camera pans across his face and the audience realises well before the cast that a villain is in their midst.

It was almost too easy to think up ways to make a better movie. As always, leaving out Matt Damon would have been a good idea; as I’ve said before, Matt Damon can’t actually play heroes; he’s at his best playing unreadable deadly ciphers; it’s no accident that his best work has been as Ripley and Bourne, damaged little freaks who could kill you or buy you lunch and not really know what the difference was. Hiring Jack Pulman as writer, except that he’s dead; a Private Schultz vibe would have been perfect for the tone that Clooney was aiming for.

Other odds and ends; I appreciate that there are NO French actresses with any real talent, but hiring an Australian to play your French art expert seems perverse (even more perversely, they hired a dialect coach for Jean Dujardin, a Frenchman playing a Frenchman). The team’s German interpreter had an impressive Cherman accent, but the actor playing him turned out to be Greek, puzzlingly enough. It’s not like George Clooney (on whose head all this lies) isn’t a smooth cosmopolitan guy with lots of European friends. I suppose no matter how smooth you are, you still wind up doing what $70 million worth of money men tell you to do. And someone needs to retire the hoary old tradition of 1940s death by powerpoint; the movie both starts and ends with Clooney talking over a slide show for the President of the USA.

Things that were dumb for no real reason; the standout is Matt Damon’s slow progress from Deauville to Paris, which suddenly speeds up when he gets a lift in an aeroplane. It wasn’t clear to me why the plane couldn’t just fly to where he was, instead of him needing to walk to it, but I was slightly distracted from being annoyed about that when I noticed that in defiance of all logic, the plan had a UK civil registration number all over the top of its wing. I spent the next five minutes of the movie trying to think of a plausible way for that to have happened, but it’s not like it distracted me from anything important.

All in all, it’s a genial low stakes ramble around Europe, with Clooney and crew desperately trying to persuade the audience that preserving art works is somehow worth getting killed for (tellingly, the only people who get killed are the non-Americans). And it’s charming enough - isn’t Clooney always charming enough? - that it wasn’t till this evening on my way home that I started to feel cranky about it. Clooney pushes the line all the way through that you have to preserve art so as to preserve culture and the sense of identity for entire peoples. And it suddenly hit me that this is tosh. Entire peoples couldn’t give a wet sock about the art Clooney and company were trying to save. It has almost nothing to do with national identity. Most of it was commissioned by elites, whether the church, the aristocracy or trading magnates, and it had as much to do with real national culture as the educated habit of speaking Latin had to do with the daily lives of medieval peasants. It was an elite expression of a shared elite cultural norm, and by the time that the Monuments Men were trying to save it, it belonged in museums or the mansions of wealthy private collectors - most of the stuff that they recovered was from the latter group.

And to my astonishment, I found myself getting annoyed with George Clooney, of all people; with his assumption that the things which mattered to the people he knows are the things which ought to matter to everyone.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Robocop; There are things science shouldn't bring back

Starring former Batman! Former Commissioner Gordon! Former Rorschach from Watchmen! Continuing Nick Fury! Omar!

Also starring Joel Kinnamon, whose last big gig was a reworking of a better original, the US do-over of the Killing. Maybe he should be looking at doing more original work.

Lots of people were getting all hissy at the idea of remaking Robocop at all, as though it were some species of cinematic miracle which should never be tampered with. Rather than a hyper-violent piece of self-aware crap which tried to smuggle a satire on 80s American mores into a cop actioner. My own attitude was, by all means, if you think you can improve on that, give it a shot. I saw the original in actual America, which is not something I’m proud of, since I was only in the US for ten days and it’s a shame that I spent any of that time doing things I could just as well have done at home. I didn’t get the impression that the audience picked up on the satire at all, but then again neither did I. I just thought it was a weirdly violent movie with hilarious fake commercials embedded in it (still my favourite bit). Playing the violence for laughs wasn’t exactly transgressive. This was the 80s, when every second movie had some flat faced ubermensch schwacking the untermenschen with a quip. Not that even that was terribly 80s; Bond had got that party started long before.

Robocop isn’t, then, anything I think needs to be taken seriously. It’s not even Verhoeven’s biggest misfire (that’s a dead heat between Starship Troopers and Showgirls, if you must ask), just another reasonably solid action movie in a decade full of them. Quite why anyone felt it was worth remaking at all was more of an issue for me than the notion that it was blasphemous. Quite how it took three studios to get it done is an even bigger puzzle, though I got a laugh out of them redubbing the MGM lion’s roar with Samuel L Jackson’s warmup noises for his first TV rant of the evening.

Enough of the precedents. Does the new clone work on its merits?

Nah. Robocop is a bust as a character. The suit doesn’t give any actor, however good, much to work with. And amazingly, thirty years of progress in effects haven’t done a damn thing to make CGI Robocop any more interesting to watch than rubber-suit-and-wing-it Robocop was. So the character can’t save you, and the effects never save you; just like the original, you’re going to live and die on your villains. Robocop has utterly blah villains. There’s no Clarence Boddicker, nor yet his posse of anarchically violent morons. And Michael Keaton can’t single-handedly deliver the deadpan evil of that 80s corporate wickedness dream team of Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer. Last, but not least, fun and all as Samuel L Jackson’s composite of every lunatic from Fox News is, the problem is that he’s too damn plausible to undermine his own message the way a satire should. They needed someone more slippery and ambiguous.

Of course, it doesn’t help the satire that the Samuel L Jackson “Robots are the answer” message seems to make objective sense. The robots get it right more than the humans do, and for all the angst about giving them the power to open up on humans, any time we see the robots in action they’re clinical, dispassionate and accurate, putting the hurt only where it’s needed. The first - the real - Robocop was much more straightforward; as soon as we met ED-209, it shot some hapless schlub to hamburger because of  a programming glitch. This Robocop’s robots are disquieting only in their perfection.

Taken purely on its merits, it’s a movie which starts out strong, with robots patrolling the streets of liberated Tehran, and gets weaker the longer it runs. What makes that harder to take is that the original started out strong and kept kicking it up in every act after that. The final gun battle is a bloodbath; the climax proper is biting and full of black humour, with the true villains of the piece undercut by their own cleverness. It’s not high art, but it’s well put together. This new version has none of that bite, none of that sense of things building to a crescendo.

God, as I said at the end, that wasn’t good. But like a lot of things that aren’t good, it had enough good things in it to make me wonder about how it could have been. One thing I wondered about was whether it would have been more fun if Gary Oldman’s role as the mad scientist had been filled with expert mad scientist John Noble. And the other thing, and I know you’re all with me on this, was to wish that, as long as they had OMAR on the cast list, they’d made him into Robocop. As Michael Keaton said “Make it tactical. Make it more black.” That would have been worth the effort.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Lone Survivor; Spoilers!

When you know just what's going to happen in a movie before it even starts, it's going to need some real magic to get any grip on you. If you're Peter Berg, man of little magic, you need lunatic levels of self confidence to go for it anyway. Luckily, Hollywood has never been short of lunatic levels of self confidence.

Lone Survivor is a filmed dramatisation of all the stuff which went horribly wrong in Operation Red Wings (that name is apparently what happens when you decide to call a series of operations after hockey teams and have to skip all the names so bad ass the US Armed Forces are already using them to describe special ops units). I say it's a filmed dramatisation because they've sped up the action, from five days down to three, and added a gun battle at the end when the reality was that once a good-hearted Afghan village sheltering Marcus Luttrell told the Taliban to get bent, the Taliban paid heed to the fact that their opponents were both numerous and fierce - and dug in - and went home to make video tapes of how at least they'd killed the other three Navy Seals and shot down a helicopter full of 16 other US special ops people who'd come to try to rescue them. No climactic gun battle, just the cavalry eventually showing up after a couple of weeks of searching.

It's a hard movie to watch; the middle third is a gruelling montage of the soldiers getting slowly shot to bits and falling endlessly down the mountainside slamming into rocks and tree-trunks in what look like horrible crippling impacts. It's a bit grisly to contemplate the thinking behind it; they worked from autopsies and Luttrell's own account to duplicate the injuries as faithfully as possible, and they injured a lot of stuntmen getting the falls to look right. We're ground right into their suffering, and a lot of the time, this doesn't feel like a movie which is glamourising war.

Yet, in a way it is. We live through the slow deaths of the US soldiers, but the Taliban hunting them go down wordlessly, instantly, inconsequentially; there's a montage at the end of all the 20 US soldiers who died, but no mention at all of the men who died trying to kill them. Just like Black Hawk Down, a film it shares a lot of DNA with (based on a book, bootcamps for the actors, big help-out from the US armed forces in production, uncritical view of the US military), it's essentially a modern dress Little Big Horn, as gallant US soldiers go down under a hail of fire from faceless and expendable hordes. 

Which is not to say it's entirely wrongheaded. The Taliban are not the good guys. The poor doomed guys in Operation Red Wings would probably have made it - and we'd never have heard anything about them - if they'd been less principled and just murdered the herders who found them and ratted them out to the Taliban as soon as they could. They died because they tried to be better than the people they were hunting. If a movie's going to promote the things the US military gets up to, that's the kind of thing I'd like to see held up as the example. But somehow, it still felt like a zombie movie; the few brave heroes against the faceless malevolent subhuman horde.

I blame Berg, who meant well, but - as he demonstrated in The Kingdom - doesn't have what it takes to give a nuanced picture of the real world, in which everyone - however wrong they might be about themselves - still thinks they're doing their best.