Thursday, 28 May 2015

Tomorrowland; Ayn Rand for the under-fives

Tomorrowland has stumbled coming out the gate, which is a pretty good piece of meta-commentary by the audience. The whole movie is one big message about how expecting the worst will give you the worst, and just to hammer the point home, here’s a pretty good movie which everyone believes is a bad one because no-one bothered to go.

Well, not no-one. It cost north of $190 million to make and market Tomorrowland and it only made about $30 million in its opening weekend, so obviously this is a disaster and the film has flopped and we must all stay away from it lest the fail rub off on us. But that’s 1% of the population of the USA giving it a couple of hours over the weekend. How is that failure?

Of course, the movie itself would probably argue that it’s the smartest 1%, because the other big message in the movie is that mere managers and politicians should just get out of the way and let genius roll its sleeves up. Yes, I had a great time, but it is kind of cuddly Ayn Rand for the under-fives and I wouldn’t be hugely upset if that kind of message went unheard. The elites are doing just fine and the last thing anyone needs is more propaganda for their viewpoint.

And yet. It’s a good movie. The message is either diabetically sweet or stealth libertarianism, but it’s carried off with real skill and good performances. It’s that rare thing, a movie full of CGI which gets a job done without making a fuss about it. The world of tomorrow has to look amazing and CGI is the only way to go, but it doesn’t dominate the screen the way other effects-heavy trash tends to. Brad Bird knows how to keep a balance between the wonder and the people who are experiencing the wonder; more than that, he knows that the wonder doesn’t mean anything unless we care about the people in the middle of it.

Which is where the writing and the acting comes in. George Clooney is on the publicity material, but the hard work’s being done by the two young women. I’d never heard of Britt Robertson or Raffey Cassidy, but they’re both great. Raffey Cassidy may well be the next Chloe Moretz. Britt Robertson isn’t in that kind of league, but she does a great job of making Casey Newton a believable smart young woman; there’s a moment half way through when she snaps at Clooney’s “Wait….” with “What? So more robots can come and kill us?”; she’s built the character so thoroughly that it rings utterly true. This is a smart girl who’s had a hard day and is all out of patience, and it’s all there in one line. Rafael Cassidy’s Athena ought to be a messy cliche, but instead she’s a delight playing an old-beyond-her-years robot girl who veers between perfect aplomb and even more perfect ass-kicking. She’s like Hit-Girl’s swear-free English cousin. Astonishingly, she’s not even in the trailers; I almost feel like I’m engaging in spoilers to mention that she exists. But yes, she exists and she’s the best thing in the movie. Which takes a bit of doing when the grown ups are led by George Clooney and Hugh Laurie both with the charm turned up to eleven.

All in all, it’s well worth your time. You may not agree with the message - I was rooting for Hugh Laurie’s villain, whose last big speech made a lot more sense to me - but you’d need to be dead not to get a kick out of the delivery system.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Mad Max; Groundhog Day

It’s one thing to decide that Mad Max: Fury Road works as a movie on its own. It’s a whole nother job to try to make sense of the four movies as a coherent narrative about a character called Max Rockatansky.

In the beginning, when I was hobbling into the cinema to watch the first two movies again and again, it all made some kind of sense. In the first movie, Australia’s falling apart with biker gangs contesting the roads and towns with an amped up federal police called the Main Force Patrol. By the time the movie ends, Max has lost his family and most of his friends and is cruising the highways as a vigilante with nowhere to go. Then in Mad Max 2, everything’s gone to hell and Max is cruising the wilderness while feral gangs lay siege to the last scattered outposts of decency. The world, we’re told in an ominous voiceover at the beginning, has fallen apart, and Max is just a haunted shell of a man. It feels like five or ten years might have gone by, hard years that brought out the worst in nearly everyone. 

By the end of Mad Max 2, Max has redeemed himself a bit. He’s saved the innocent and dusted up the ungodly and then limps off into the sunset, while the voiceover tells us that he lives now only in the memories of the kid he saved, now an old man telling stories to the Great Northern Tribe.

All of this pretty much makes sense, narratively. The first movie brings Max to his lowest, the second movie begins with him still reeling, and by the end he’s got it together and found some peace for himself.

Enter the third movie. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome starts with Max once again on his own and apparently once more just out for himself, and once again he spends the whole movie gradually getting pushed into helping out a whole bunch of innocents who he initially just wanted to abandon. And there’s a big chase, because it’s a Mad Max movie, and this is what they do. The movie was made a couple of years after Mad Max 2, though I’ve no idea how much time is supposed to have passed in-universe. There’s a bunch of kids stuck in an oasis who are all survivors of a plane crash. Logically, the plane crash should be around the same time as the final collapse of civilisation, and about the least creepy interpretation of what happened next is that none of the kids we see were born after that crash, so it’s six, seven, maybe eight years after the fall, and I feel like I may be doing a lot more thinking about this than anyone did on set.

Still, it feels like that shot of redemption at the end of Mad Max 2 didn’t really take, because Max is having to go through that whole thing again. Including the innocents getting to flee to a better homeland, and a voiceover at the end from one of the kids about how she’s keeping the story of Mad Max alive so that people will remember him.

Thunderdome didn’t do super well compared to its predecessors on the money front (it cost more and made less, never a winning combo in Hollywood) and George Miller went off and did a whole bunch of other things for 30 years, none of which featured truck chases and ass-less chaps, and Mel Gibson went off and became objectively way crazier than any of his characters, and finally, long after I’d stopped even wondering if they’d ever try it again, Miller made Fury Road.

And stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Max is once again a lonely outcast dragooned into rescuing innocents in a big truck chase so that they can get to a promised land and he can find some redemption and then wander off alone into the wilderness.

Well, what the actual hell? Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of things which are all kinds of fun to keep doing again and again in the same old way. And Mad Max movies certainly qualify. But this is the third time he’s lived the same plot, at a higher and higher intensity each time. By the second time that John McClane had to spend Christmas Day fighting terrorists, he was starting to grumble out loud about how weird it was that this kept happening to him. And the chronology is doing my head in. Max is looking pretty fresh for a guy who was a fully grown policeman back before the collapse. Tom Hardy is 38 years old, and looks not too far off that as Max. Gibson was a fresh faced 23 when he first played Max. Imperator Furiosa expressly tells her long lost siblings that it’s been 7000 nights since she was kidnapped into child slavery by Immortan Joe. That’s 20 years, pretty much. And Immortal Joe’s lunatic economy looks like it’s been in place for long enough that a whole generation of people has grown up knowing nothing else. I can put together a line which would have Max walking around middle-aged or so while all this happened, but it’s a pretty tight time line and he has to be a pretty young cop who started his family weirdly young. Or I can throw my hands up in the air and accept that it’s a movie and the timelines make no sense.

It’s easier to make Fury Road’s time-line make sense if you pretend that Thunderdome never happened, even easier if you think of it as a reboot directly after the first movie and Mad Max 2 never happened either. But there’s all kinds of little callbacks to the earlier movies...

Or you could adopt a Mad Max version of the James Bond fan theory that James Bond is just a work name for a whole bunch of spies one after another. (1) That kind of makes sense; the wasteland’s full of lunatics who need redemption, and the stories are told long after the fact about a variety of lunatics who show up at different times and places.

But I think it’s simpler. I think it’s all one long nightmare for Max, who keeps dreaming ever more horrible futures in which he has to redeem himself after the straightforwardly horrible disasters of the first movie. That’s why all the movies feel the same, run the same and end the same. Max is in hell, and we are with him, enjoying the show.


(1) This explains a) why Bond keeps looking different b) why he’s still in early middle age instead of on his pension fifty years after he first showed up in the movies c) why he has to keep introducing himself as “Bond. James Bond.” d) why he hasn’t died of a million different STIs yet.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Characters actual size



Thirty years ago, my local cinema ran double bills of Mad Max & Mad Max 2 every weekend for several months. I walked a couple of miles in each direction enough times that I can still recite chunks of the dialogue from both movies. It hadn’t been long since they’d taken off my articulated cast and downgraded me to one stick instead of two crutches, and a bad ass road warrior with a wonky leg was the hero I needed to see. Max Rockatansky hobbled into my life at just the right moment, and I’ve modelled …. none …. of my life on his example, a failure which I attribute entirely to the inexplicable lack of apocalypses to give me the context in which I could drive over all the obstacles. I blame the lack of a cosmic apocalypse for the fact that I didn’t pass my driving test until 2006; I just know I’d have passed it first time if I’d been taking the test in a post-atomic wasteland.

Which is by way of saying that I strolled into Mad Max: Fury Road with a bit of baggage. Fury Road was going to need to be amazing to live up to the accumulated nostalgia of the originals (as, for example, Beyond Thunderdome didn’t).

If I’m honest, I doubt that even being in the movie myself would have lived up to the way I felt about the movies as a newly minted gimp looking for something to feel good about. You can’t be young again, even if you can be immature forever. So I’m going to try not to measure Fury Road against that impossible baseline.

To get the obvious bit out of the way, Fury Road looks like George Miller has spent the 34 years since Mad Max 2 wishing he’d had the money to do a chase scene properly. If you liked that bit of Mad Max 2, you’re going to love Fury Road. On the one hand, it’s got even more lunatic vehicles than all the other three movies put together, and on the other hand, they get banged into each other in even more lunatic ways than, well, anything else I’ve seen in a cinema. And when I say even more lunatic vehicles, I mean that every way I can mean it; there are a lot more vehicles, and they are much more over the top. There’s one truck which has every surviving speaker and amplifier in the world in the middle, four loons with bass drums on the back, and an even bigger loon with a double-barrelled electric guitar up front, none of it with any other apparent purpose than to provide music on the go for the rest of the convoy. The guitar, of course, doubles as a flame-thrower. The cars the chases and the action are all everything a fan of Mad Max 2 could ever have asked for.

Is there a tanker truck full of precious cargo which isn’t what it appears to be? Yeah. Are there maniacs with improvised weapons? Yeah. Does the visible economy make any kind of sense at all? No. If Mad Max 2 switched on the post-apocalyptic punk drum machine and Beyond Thunderdome turned the knob to eleven with a knowing grin, Fury Road pulls the knob off the machine, throws it right in your eye and then bolts on a brand new knob bigger than the machine itself, made of skulls and brass and left over weapon parts and no numbers at all, because where they’re going, numbers don’t even matter any more.

If anyone’s got the right to do this, it’s George Miller, because Mad Max 2 pretty much invented the post-apocalyptic aesthetic which countless movies have riffed on ever since; without Mad Max 2, something like the The Book of Eli wouldn’t have known what to look like. 

So, it looks amazing and it has chases to die for; is it much of an actual movie underneath all that? Well, yes. There’s a pretty solid plot which gets the characters from A to B and makes at least as much sense as any of the other Max movies, not to mention more sense than the economy of the Wasteland. It stands up as a story, rather than just giving a pretext for what would otherwise be one long violent truck chase.

However, it’s a Mad Max movie more in the story and action than in the way it’s a story about Max. For much of the movie, Max is overshadowed by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. I’m not sure that Charlize could’ve stolen a movie off Mel Gibson in his prime, but she walks off with this one despite Tom Hardy’s best efforts. I hear there’s been all kinds of Sad Puppies whinging about that, to which I wearily say “Man up.” Furiosa is cool, and the movie needs her to work. Max starts out as a creature of pure reflex survival instincts, and one of the two big themes in the movie is how he gradually becomes something more. Which means that we need a proper hero to get things on the move, both to give the story some welly and to give Max something to live up to. Furiosa gets that job done with sass to spare.

Is this a feminist action movie? Don’t be stupid. It’s an action movie with cars in it. And, off in the distance somewhere, people. The men are, it’s true, rampaging arseholes, and the society they’ve created is an insane parody of the very worst ideas men have had throughout history for running things to suit themselves. The distance between that and a feminist action movie; well, Fury Road arguably fails the Bechdel test, but even if you want to give it a pass because one named-only-in-the-credits woman has a conversation with another named-only-in-the-credits woman about seeds, it’s still a movie which at best is a) presenting a parodic vision of slavery and oppression and b) shows women doing manly things just as well as men do. The revolution is still some way off, methinks. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Claire North: Touch

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was good enough that I ponied up for Touch as soon as it showed up on Kindle at my magical price point of ten bucks or so. North’s schtick is to take some preposterous idea and then write about it well enough that it - well it doesn’t stop looking preposterous, but you get drawn into how the characters are having a terrible time in preposterous world, instead of thinking “But how would that even work?” So last time it was reincarnation, but always as the same person born at the same time, and this time it’s a thinking person’s version of this movie; what if some wandering spirit could steal your body and just walk around in it like a meat suit?

I commented on Harry August that North had made a world full of slightly benign vampires, walking around among us trying to make the world a little more comfortable for their next go around and the one after that. In Touch the vampirism never really quite lands as benign, no matter how much the narrator tries to sell it to us. Sure, you borrow the body, carefully explaining the deal up front and paying the muppet afterwards directly or indirectly for the weeks or months you’ve been using it. Let’s just stick a pin in how many explanations that is and how long it is before the word gets out about this weirdness, and focus on how it just couldn’t work in practice; you get yourself possessed and you’ve no clue what the hell has been happening while you were possessed; how are any of these people ever going to pick up where their possessor left off? There’s going to be a trail of destruction a mile wide behind every single one of these guys. And that’s before the middle of the book, where we start to see how creepy it can really get.

The narrator is, just like Harry August, an ingratiating type, full of self-serving explanations about how it’s all for the best really, and in the early going, with some mysterious initiative out to get him at any cost, he feels like a well meaning underdog trying to get by in a tricky situation. But the further we go, the more it feels like you’re listening to a wife-beater explain how he loves his women really and he just can’t help what it makes him do. By the time he’s wrapped up the plot and fled the aftermath, hopping from body to body on a wave of self congratulation, my sense of rapport had blown away in the breeze. 

I have to say, North is a good enough writer that I think that this was always the plan. Anyone else would have made him the slick anti-hero, one step ahead of the competition and really, not so bad a guy when you got to know him. Fantasy and supernatural fiction is full of efforts to make relatable monsters; look no further than Lestat, who was fun as a charming vampire asshole, but got steadily more unbearable the more Anne Rice thought of him as the beau ideal of tortured romance. North plays a cleverer game, letting the narrator rattle on with the guff he has to believe to get on with his life, but also letting all the bad stuff pile up through the book until the reader can’t help seeing through it. No matter how much this … thing … tells us he’s not such a bad guy, in the end he’s stealing bits out of people’s lives to eke out his own. And once we see enough of that, even through his careful eyes, it doesn’t feel like any kind of victory that he lives to fight another day.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Big Game; world's second most ridiculous fridge

Big Game has the biggest budget of any Finnish movie ever made, so naturally they actually made it in Germany, reportedly because the Finnish director thought that the Alps looked more like Lapland than Lapland does. I suspect you have to be a Finn to understand exactly what kind of joke that is, although it may just have been a joke on the German taxpayers, who were collective executive producers of Big Game through the miracle of film subsidies.

Every penny of the budget shows on screen, especially when it comes to the digital effects, which are comfortingly wonky looking and add to the fun in the same way that handmade wooden toys are somehow more cherishable than perfectly machined Transformers action figures. “yes, yes,” the movie seems to be saying “we had to fake this with CGI, and we all know we had to do that, so let’s just get on with the movie, which will have something human scaled in just a second."

Easily the best special effect is Samuel L Jackson, who is taking it easy as a slightly disreputable US president who doesn’t know how a gun works, can’t look after himself in a punch up and needs a one week lead time and a stack of flash cards to make his one-liners land. Jackson can’t quite manage not to be cool, but he sells the idea that cool is an effort for him. Which lets his Finnish child actor co-star keep up handily. They make a fun pair to hang out with, because neither of them is really any good at action, but they’ve both got a lot of heart.

When I saw that Ray Stevenson was a headliner, my spirits rose, because I will watch Ray Stevenson in just about anything. Sadly, since he stopped being Titus Pullo he always seems to be playing the bad guy, and Big Game is no exception. When are they going to make Ray the hero? And when are they going to let him just keep his own voice? 

Plot; US president is being chased around Lapland by crazed terrorists and only a Finnish child on a hunting quest can save him. The action jumps back and forth between the chase on the ground and the Pentagon situation room where a cast of ringers are getting nothing done to project US power into the arctic circle. The US doesn’t come out of this looking great, really. On the one hand, they’re powerless to intervene in Lapland, and on the other hand, the only US people with their heads on straight are the machiavellian sleaze bags who’ve put together the whole plot as a false flag operation to get rid of a weak president and replace him with one whose weaknesses are more to their liking. Did I say ringers? Ted Levine (from Oscar winning move Silence of the Lambs and about a million TV shows). Jim Broadbent (Oscar winner in his own right) Felicity Huffman (Oscar nominee) Victor Garber (Alias, Argo, Titanic) do all the talking in the war room. I imagine it took them a couple of days and they’re not exactly stretching themselves, but look at all that quality ...

Meanwhile back in Lapland, it’s an enjoyably bonkers action movie with a tiny cast and a director forced to use imagination and characterisation to make up for a lack of money. It doesn’t always work, but it works better than a lot of other things I’ve seen which had money to cover their other sins.I loved it that Oskari is the dead opposite of a bad ass and never really rises above that. Yes, he’s got a bow and arrows, but every time he tries to draw the bow the arrows just flop onto the ground in front of him. And somehow, that never gets old. I think the movies have conditioned us to think that “this time it will work.” and somehow the more it doesn’t, the funnier it gets - and the truer it feels. The action and plot are ridiculous, but the people in the middle feel real.

And then there’s the fridge. Oskari has to prove he’s a man by going into the forest and killing something, but even his own father, the greatest hunter of them all, rates his chances so low that he’s stashed a deer head in a cooler on the mountainside so that Oskari will have something to bring back. The cooler ought to get third billing; it’s centre screen for about twenty minutes, and it’s the second most ridiculous fridge in the movies. And it’s no one trick pony; it’s bulletproof, watertight, airtight, buoyant and all but indestructible as Oskari and the President get dragged through the forest in it, machine gunned in it and then fly off a cliff and into a lake, all without so much as a scratch or a dent on either of them or the fridge. 

Big Game isn’t quite as mad as other Scandinavian lunacy I’ve seen, but it shows how much you can do with a little money and a simple plan. It’s tempting to wonder what the team could do with Hollywood money, but I think it would be more interesting to give Hollywood Finnish money and see if things got better.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Age of Ultron; America takes the day off from being demolished all the time

Age of Ultron must be measured in some kind of dog years. The Stone Age lasted for tens of thousands of years. The Iron Age lasted for thousands of years. The Age of Reason lasted for decades (don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s still underway). The Age of Ultron unfolds over a matter of days, though in fairness to everyone involved, it does feel like it’s outlasting the Stone Age. One minute Tony Stark is trying to cook up an artificial intelligence which will armour the world, the next thing it’s gone rogue, and within days it’s running a robot revolution aimed at destroying humanity, almost as if it knows that it’s in an Avengers movie.

Over the course of Marvel’s gradual subjugation of the world of the movies, the one thing which hasn’t changed is that the villains are always out to destroy the world, This is because The Avengers are such a crowd of DICKS that only the complete destruction of the world begins to look as if it would be worse than having these ass-clowns try to save it. The first Avengers movie featured the Avengers doing Superman levels of property destruction preventing the alleged end of the world. The Winter Soldier devastated Washington. It’s hard to believe that humanity’s enemies could make more of a mess of the place than the Avengers do “saving” it. 

Age of Ultron doesn’t really change the disc. The mid movie setpiece has Iron Man taking on the Hulk in a fight which more or less levels the downtown of some unidentified African city. Then the gang go to Korea and devastate Seoul while trying to snatch some piece of McGuffinry that Ultron was planning to use. Finally, they go back to Eastern Europe, which, like Africa, is totally a place and doesn’t need to be given any local identity, and just annihilate the whole damn place in the name of stopping Ultron from annihilating everything. The Avengers just do terrible things to property values. But in this movie, at least they’re not doing them to American property values, which I think is a first. They don’t devastate a single US built up area, which makes Age of Ultron a much more insightful commentary on American foreign policy than Winter Soldier ever was. I like to think that Joss Whedon pointed out that between everything that’s happened in all the other Marvel movies to date, most of the continental US has ALREADY been levelled, and it would cause continuity problems if the Avengers came back and relevelled it before the reconstruction could be completed. Going on how long it took to rehabilitate New Orleans (to pick a natural disaster) it might be some time before a Marvel movie can take place in the US, for fear that the fan boys will point out that the action is happening only a fortnight after New York was devastated and the place should still be full of construction crews.

It’s bad news for the third world, of course, but what isn’t?

What’s the good news for the movie? It’s less of a mess than the last Avengers movie, but Putin’s foreign policy is less of a mess than that was. There are fewer punch-ups between Avengers, which is always good. There’s very little Hydra, which is bad. There’s no Loki which, considering Loki was pretty much the only good thing about the first Avengers movie, has to go in the bad column. There’s no Gwyneth Paltrow, which would normally be a good thing, but these things need all the help they can get. There’s any amount of Jeremy Renner doing Hawkeye, the absurdity of which is perfectly summed up in this line: "The city is flying and we're fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.” No-one is ever going to convince me that Hawkeye is a good idea. Despite this, Joss Whedon seems to have decided to amp him and give him some backstory. I can’t believe that Jeremy Renner doesn’t have an agent at least as good as Natalie Portman, who managed to get her character the equivalent of a sick note so that she didn’t even need to show up. The downside of that was that Age of Ultron fails the Bechdel test so hard it almost vanishes into some kind of inter dimensional wormhole and turns everyone into feminists. There are three named female characters in the movie (so it should have passed Bechdel stage 1 normally), but they exist in a sea of testosterone so soupy that they might as well be guys in drag. Next time someone tells you that Joss Whedon writes strong female characters, remind him of this movie (it will be a him). Then get yourself some more well rounded friends.

And the bad news; well, there’s a lot more of this stuff coming. And it seems to be coming for the third world. Africa and Eastern Europe have been devastated. I can only imagine South America is trembling in the wings.