Thursday, 26 February 2015

Big Hero Six; Everything is Orphans

It is literally impossible to sit through Big Hero Six without a still small voice echoing through your mind “The Lego Movie was robbed!” It’s not that it’s a bad movie, it’s that it beggars the understanding that it won an Oscar when The Lego Movie wasn’t even nominated. But its real problem is that there’s not enough Baymax and way too much superhero origin story. Baymax is loveable and weird and silly, and the movie can’t wait to cram him into armour and make him into a badass superhero along with a bunch of other superheroes. It’s as though the people making the movie didn’t realise that every character was more interesting as not-a-superhero.

Like so many movies these days, it’s great looking. I liked its vision of a nisei-run San Francisco, and never for a moment wondered how it was all supposed to work. Admittedly that was mostly because that part of my mind was preoccupied with how cheap and ubiquitous electronic components had become. What were all the hovering turbines supposed to be doing? I still don’t know. Maybe they were just supposed to look cool. They did that quite handily.

As always, I have to fight the temptation to see it all as a metaphor for the problems of our modern world. What could I read into a lovable obese kindly robot being weaponised and crammed into armour at the behest of a hyper active teenager on a revenge kick after a mysterious explosion levels an iconic building? Does that remind me of anything in particular? Tricky. Or is it just glamourising being a wobbly fat creature who walks like a baby with a full nappy (the actual model used for Baymax’s gait). Does the US really need to make being morbidly obese any more popular than it already is?


Mind you, the one lesson for us all is that if you want to get anything done, schwack a dude’s parents. This is  yet another movie aimed at kids where the protagonist’s parents are absent. Like they almost said in The Lego Movie, Everything is Orphans.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending; Sean Bean Lives!

For a woman in a movie called Jupiter Ascending, Mila Kunis sure spends a hell of a lot of time falling off things. She doesn’t get splatted into jelly because Channing Tatum keeps catching her, and somehow Channing Tatum has an understanding with the laws of physics which lets them look away when he collides at sixty miles an hour with a hot chick travelling at terminal velocity in the opposite direction. This is terrible nitpicking on my part, since it’s not as though anything else in the movie is respecting the laws of physics, but you give mile long starships travelling through force portals more of a pass than people acting like they’re in a road runner cartoon.

Jupiter Ascending is one of those movies where you can see every dollar on the screen and still not see why they put it there. It’s a great looking movie, but … 

… every now and then, as I’ve said before on this blog, I just stick the DVD of The Matrix on and skip to the lobby demolition scene. Which is a magnificent, pointless piece of violent destruction that doesn’t make a lick of sense and arguably doesn’t advance the plot a single centimetre. It doesn’t matter. It’s glorious. Somehow the Wachowskis achieved perfection - sure, a very limited form of perfection - in that scene. There are scenes all over Jupiter Ascending which are far more spectacular and visibly cost even more money to stage and which move the plot along in some way, and which I don’t care if I never see them again.

So, stick a pin in that bit. Jupiter Ascending looks as good as anything you’re likely to see in a cinema this year. It’s in 3D, and as usual it doesn’t make any real difference but at least it doesn’t look murky and it doesn’t have that child’s shoebox diorama staging that has ruined a lot of other 3D movies. They spent a fortune on effects and released almost a year behind schedule getting them right and you can see every penny up there. You will not, however, spend any time the next day telling people “And then …."

Other than that, tell me if any of this reminds you of another movie; the heroine is living a boring humdrum existence but secretly has a destiny which can change all of reality. There are invisible creatures who can drop into our reality at will, wreak havoc and then cover it all up as if it never happened. There’s a vast conspiracy using human lives as fuel for their own ends. Aided by a bunch of professional badasses in black leather with their own badass spaceship, the heroine discovers her destiny, uses it to save the world, and ends the movie flying around with the chief ass-kicker. The only thing which wasn’t already in the Matrix; family troubles. Two sets of them, when I come to think of it; Jupiter’s actual family, which is Russian and cheerfully useless, and Jupiter’s space family, who badly need to be nuked into the stone age.

Possibly inspired by their source material, the Wachowskis seem to have told Channing Tatum to dial everything down to Keanu levels of woodenness, and then told Mila Kunis not to show him up, so that two of the funnier non-comedians in Hollywood are largely playing straight and dumb. Then they threw platoons of English ringers at the screen until I thought that I was watching a very special episode of Dr Who. For some reason, everyone in outer space sounds English; meanwhile Jupiter Jones’ whole family is Russian, including a game Maria Doyle Kennedy pulling off a Russian accent I’m not qualified to second guess. I fear it sounds every bit as ridiculous to Russians as the average Russian trying to talk like a leprechaun sounds to me, but what could the Wachowskis do? There are literally no Russian actresses in the wild any more, just as George Clooney had no choice but to cast an Australian as a Frenchwoman.

In fun news, Sean Bean finally doesn’t die in a movie, an event which surely presages the end of global warming, honest politicians, and a balanced Greek budget. Though not, of course peace in the Middle East, because that would be ridiculous.

Snuck into the middle of the whole thing is what I can only think was a guest directing appearance by Terry Gilliam, as Jupiter attempts to navigate space bureaucracy in order to claim her inheritance. Instead of vast space battles on a huge canvases, Jupiter gets stuck in a series of every more claustrophobic office spaces populated by an ever-escalating parade of grotesques. It’s bonkers, it’s brilliant, it’s straight out of Brazil, and it’s more comforting to believe that Gilliam snuck onto the set and directed it while no-one was looking than it is to ponder the thought that the Wachowskis had it in them to do that scene and still went ahead with the rest of the movie.

Still, unlike The Matrix, it’s unlikely to have two sequels which suck all the joy out of the first one retrospectively, even though it shows every sign of being the set up for a trilogy in which Jupiter Jones will save the galaxy from a bunch of stuff (the title alone hints that Jupiter will be doing something height related in at least one other movie, and while she saves this world in this movie, the rest of the galaxy needs a LOT of work).

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Shaun the Sheep

Every now and then I hit something which I can’t tear to pieces and which isn’t a masterpiece, and I’m just sitting here like a goldfish, flapping my lips and trying to think of something which is worth saying. Shaun the Sheep is a lovely little movie whose most remarkable achievement is probably coming up with a story to tell after they’d already done something like a couple of hundred seven minute shorts. Just how many stories are there to tell about a mischievous sheep? It’s impressive that they can keep coming up with them no matter what else they do.

The other great achievement is figuring out how to mix wool and plasticine without the plasticine picking up wool fibres like some kind of wool magnet the way it always did when I was seven years old. A lot of the plasticine in my primary school was half hair and carpet by weight and volume. If we’d been a little more modern in our outlook, we’d have called it a fibre reinforced composite, instead of wishing we could just get new plasticine which wasn’t the same colour as our shoes.

What struck me after the fact was that it would make a great double bill with a Minions movie. Shaun the Sheep doesn’t use dialogue; everyone communicates with grunts and expressive noises, and it’s extraordinary how much they can get across without a single intelligible word being spoken. Especially when most of the characters are sheep; there’s only so much you can do to make plasticine sheep distinct characters.

Like most animated movies in our modern age, it’s pitched high and low; the plot and dumb jokes are aimed at the kids, while they sneak in hundreds of sly pop culture references for the people paying for the treat. (A telling moment was when the only advert before the movie was for mortgages; that said a lot about the kind of adult they thought would be in the audience). I’m pretty sure that I missed most of them, and I still spotted Silence of the Lambs, Breaking Bad and at least a couple of Tarantino movies. Parents of five year olds are going to get plenty of chances to catch them all because I can see this thing being stuck in DVD players up and down the country on repeat play for years to come.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Kingsman: let's just have a wee think about this

A couple of years back, leading lunatic Timur Bekmambetov directed an adaptation of Mark Millar’s Wanted which for reasons probably best explained using $$$ signs dropped the entire story from the comic books and replaced the Fraternity of Supervillains with a guild of homicidal do-gooders who had started out as a fraternity of weavers. Which was not even the stupidest thing about Wanted.

And here we are in 2014 and Mark Millar has joined forces with Matthew Vaughan again and this time there’s a naive young hero being introduced to a secretive society of homicidal dogooders who started out as a tailor shop.

Yeah. Right.

I saw the trailer for this and was hoping that it would be good stupid fun, while at the same time being worried that it had a whole Harry Potter vibe going on; young protagonist goes to spy school and has to fight all the snobby upper class spy students to get the right to be just like them. I worried that all that crap was going to get in the way of the fun movie I’d been hoping for.

I was worrying about the wrong thing. The movie handles the whole learning to be a spy thing well, because while it’s going on, the grown ups are getting on with their jobs and trying to figure out what Samuel L Jackson is up to (no good, as if you had to ask). It strikes a pretty good balance there.

Which freed me up to worry about the politics of the whole thing. There’s a scene around about the end of the second act when Eggsy, our unfortunate hero, has to shoot his dog to pass his final test. The minute I saw the candidates being told to pick a puppy at the beginning of training, I saw this coming; who wouldn’t? But there was one historical organisation which actually pulled this shit for real, and they were NOT the good guys. Which brings me to something I’ve been brooding about for a while now.

Spy movies may be one of the greatest propaganda jobs we’ve ever paid to be flanneled by. Real world spies are grey individuals who find greedy or desperate locals and manipulate them into giving away secrets. Movie spies are glamorous go-getters who murder people almost at random while looking cool as hell. And we lap it up, god help us. But imagine for a second if we actually had those kinds of spy in real life. They’d be like death squads. Unaccountable maniacs running around laying waste to lives and property on the basis of snap judgments while they’re drunk, high, distracted by hot chicks or just plain stupid. In any sane world, they’d be the bad guys, and the governments who employed them would be pariahs. Yet they’re summer tentpole movies.

Why am I even talking about this? Because Kingsman is setting out both to parody those old Bond movies and admire them, right down to nicking one of the dodgiest Bond movie posters ever. It’s un hommage, innit? It’s not just showing us dumb thrills with a straight face and letting us be atavistic for an evening; it’s nodding and winking at the conventions of the movies it’s copying, and forcing me to think about them a bit. Or rather, by not being an actual thrill ride, it’s giving me the free time to think about them a bit.

So, Kingsman, the organisation, is an incredibly well funded death squad set up by the English elite when they got upset about the impact of World War One on their sons and heirs. And it’s staffed by toffs, whose mission statement seems to be “If it looks like it will disturb the natural order of things, kill people until it stops looking that way.” Colin Firth, who is meant to be as cool as hell in the film’s scheme of things, announces that they’re above the politics and bad decisions of governments. So, a self appointed elite, set up to further the interests of the group of  uber-toffs whose own idiocy had started the war they were all so bent out of shape about, using ultra violence and enough money to have solved the real problems which ultra violence doesn’t solve.

Surely the film will show us that these people are absurd arseholes who need to be swept aside and replaced by social workers? Nah, don’t be stupid. Their fascist shenanigans are the only hope for humanity. Which is where we come back to shooting the damn puppies. You don’t get to use the SS training manual AND be the good guys.

Stuff that’s fun; Samuel L Jackson, lisping his plans at his hench people (and being in many ways more logical and decent than the good guys; sure his plan is monstrous and insane, but at least it’s an effort to make the world better for everyone left afterwards). Gazelle, whose Oscar Pistorius sabre legs used up the entire CGI budget and were kind of worth every penny only because the actress perched on top of them seemed like a genuinely smart sidekick. Mark Strong being the smartest guy in the room again. The movie having the courage to have utterly ropey CGI for everything but Gazelle’s legs, if only it hadn’t made it obvious that they had no idea what the hell they were trying to say about spy movies. Colin Firth, in general, because he can’t help being marvellous even in something this questionable.

But overall, if you want to see something which hangs together and makes its points while beating all kinds of crap out of people, just watch Kick Ass; same creative team, but with actual creativity.