Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Terminator Genesys;

The Terminator is an objectively good SF movie. It’s got a simple linear plot, just enough special effects to get by, and a bunch of small time actors doing their best with Big Jim’s clunky dialogue. Judgment Day scaled everything up and got it all just right. It’s probably Cameron’s best movie; it’s definitely the best Terminator movie to date. Against terrible competition, it has to be said. The third movie just plain stinks, and the best you can say about the fourth one is that it misfired spectacularly looking for a twist. A fifth movie? How can that have seemed like a good idea after the last two failed so thoroughly? Well, it’s worse than that; it’s a fifth sixth and seventh movie, all between now and 2019. In 2019 Cameron gets back control of the franchise. I almost want him to travel back in time from then and destroy all the stuff which threatens the integrity of the original good movies, but instead of that happening, the team seem to have thought; Right. Fifth Movie in a failing franchise. What do we need here?

Yup, Jai Courtney, hot off being part of why Die Hard 5 sucked, is here to show us what it would look like if we lived in an alternative time line where Michael Biehn had his head replaced by a potato. It’s genuinely that jarring. Emilia Clarke is four inches shorter than Linda Hamilton and somehow makes it not even matter how bad a match she is; Jai Courtney never managed to get me to stop thinking “You’re not Kyle Reese and you never will be.” Partly it’s just that he’s a poor physical match for the lean, wiry Kyle Reese that Michael Biehn gave us, and partly it’s how gormless he seems; he’s a bad mental match for the feral street smarts which Biehn managed to suggest.

Also in this movie; Dr Who (don’t ask), JK Simmons as comic relief, Jason Clarke as evil John Connor, and Arnie, because Arnie is back as more than just a hologram in this one. To the extent that the movie works, it’s down to Arnie and Emilia.

Which brings me to what works; the small chunk of the movie between the unnecessary opening sequence and the back half. The besetting sin of all Terminator sequels is that the heroes have to destroy Skynet. In Judgment Day that was a nice reversal of Skynet trying to win the war by destroying John Connor before he was born; ever since then, the writers have struggled to think of new ways to pull the same reversal with variations on “we have to X Y so that Z can’t happen/must happen.” It’s like they’re forgetting what made the first movie work; find some likeable people and throw problems at them until the credits. To quote the only good line in Jurassic World, “They’re dinosaurs. Wow enough.” Unstoppable robots chasing meatsacks; give us smart likeable meatsacks and you’ve got a movie. Killer robots from the future? Wow enough.

The clever twist in this movie is to have Kyle Reese go back to 1984, just like in the first movie, and for it to be different. Sarah Connor isn’t a frightened waitress with no clue of what’s going on; she’s a trained killer who’s been planning for his arrival for years. That’s a genuinely clever idea. Neat, simple and for as long as they run with it, it works. But it works because the audience is primed; they’ve seen the first movie, and they know what ought to be happening, and that makes all the changes surprising and exciting. Thing is, if you’ve based that whole idea on knowing that the audience has seen the earlier movies, you don’t need a goddam 15 minute recap of the backstory starting off the whole thing. You should just jump straight into the action and trust the audience to keep up.

So there you go. Clever twist in place, what’s the next move? Go for a dumb twist. John Connor is now the bad guy. They threw that one away in the trailer, so I stupidly thought that there would be a man behind the man, and that there would be some piece of cleverness which would save the movie from that twist. Nope. That’s the damn twist, and you’ve still got to live through the back half of the movie. Which is pretty much just a leaden stuntstravaganza of things bashing into other things. 

So, top tip. If you absolutely have to see someone from Game of Thrones play a time travelling Sarah Connor with her own pet Terminator, go watch the Sarah Connor Chronicles. And marvel that somehow there was $155 million to make Genesys, but not enough money to do a second season of a TV show which did the same job properly.

Ant Man; worst ant employer EVAR

The frustrating thing about watching Ant-Man is watching the remains of a more useful movie peep from round the edges. They cast Paul Rudd, who’s a perfectly useful comedian and was presumably pumped up about the opportunity to become the next Chris Pratt. They hired Edgar Wright. Good news, we all thought as we stroked our chins. This was, after all, a guy who brought in a perfectly serviceable adaptation of Scott Pilgrim. Then they fired him, or he walked away, or whatever you want to believe, but one minute Ant-Man with Edgar Wright and the next minute Ant Man with - wait, I’ll look it up on IMDB - who? Never mind. Wright still gets a writing credit, but that’s like giving Martinez the painting credit for Ecce Homo; it’s not enough to know what it could have been when you have to look at what it’s become.

I’ve been to most of the Marvel movies which have come out in the last three or four years, and I’m coming to the conclusion that I could have saved a lot of time by just seeing one of them and letting it stand in for all the others. If there’s a group of superheroes, they will squabble and have a big wreckathon some place, before they have to save the world from something which is floating over it. If there’s just one superhero, he will have to rescue a super science McGuffin from someone, and there will be daddy issues all over the damn place. Also, explosions. So many explosions. 

What I was kind of hoping for with Ant-Man was a degree of distance from that, a movie which would be genuinely small scale and small time. Nah. Same old narrative. There’s a father figure who has weird daddy relations with the other three main characters. There’s a bald plutocrat trying to steal technology which he couldn’t come up with on his own and which he’s only going to use for evil. Couldn’t we, just once, have a wicked stepmother? Why is it always the plot from Iron Man

Glinting through the dross is a better movie; one where a small time crook with even smaller time accomplices is trying to scrape by without getting noticed. I like that movie. I like its moxie, and I like the way that nobody in it takes the Avengers seriously. It’s playful and fun, and you can see how a whole movie like that might have worked as well as Guardians of the Galaxy did.

But no. We get what we get, and we show up to watch it, so we get more of the same. Rinse, lather, repeat. So, what’s to say about what we get? Weird anti-ageing effects; digitally de-aged Michael looks way more convincing that latex and make-up aged up Hayley Attwell (who I didn’t recognise; I spent her whole three minute cameo wondering if it was some kind of digitised Jenny Agutter or what the heck).

I have a new contender for the movie physics prize, because the physics of the pimp article, sorry the Pym Particle (how did no-one ever see that?) are all over the place. The Ant-Man suit somehow shrinks the distance between the molecules of the wearer. Hmmm. Doesn’t change the mass of the molecules? Won’t that make Ant-Man super-dense? Why yes, young padawan, that’s exactly what it will do. Except when it doesn’t. One moment Ant-Man has the momentum and kinetic energy of 150 lbs acting on a tiny point, and the next moment he can ride on the back of a flying ant without crushing it. Hell, one moment he’s running along the top of a gun without having any visible effect of the guy holding it, and the next he’s punching the same guy with the force of a full sized human. It’s all over the place, and yet it’s not moving fast enough to stop me noticing it. 

But in the end, the thing which annoyed me was the attitude to ants. Hank Pym and his daughter go out of their way to explain how important it is to empathise with all the ants which Ant-Man is going to use to get his results, but every plan they come up with kills ants in droves. You’d think that the word would get around.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Ted 2; not that kind of a TED Talk

Mark Wahlberg is often the best thing about the movies he’s in, which says more about the kind of movies he’s in than it says about Marky Mark. He’s an actor who’s at his best playing decent guys being messed about by forces they can’t even understand, something which works largely because Marky Mark is pretty convincing as a guy who struggles to understand what’s going on around him. Along with Mila Kunis, he was pretty much the secret weapon in Ted, which badly needed a couple of decent people to take the sour taste out of Seth McFarlane’s approach to comedy.

One sequel later, and that’s all gone; Mila Kunis couldn’t come out to play and had to be written out of the script, and Wahlberg’s struggling to make his character likeable. Too much of Ted’s bad influence and an actor honestly trying to play a guy whose marriage breakup has left him sour and wary. Easily the hardest thing to believe in the movie is that every hot chick half his age is looking for his phone number; a talking teddy bear is somehow easier to buy. Ted remains an asshole, albeit an intermittently funny one; welcome to the Seth McFarlane effect, where shocking jokes swerve into each other to occasionally hilarious and/or heartwarming effect (there’s a Kardashian joke which is horrible and yet forced a laugh out of everyone in the audience). The other weird thing about McFarlane is how many cameos he can drag into a movie.  There’s a three minute bit with Liam Neeson buying breakfast cereal which is surreal, hilarious and perfectly pitched to rip the piss out of the last ten Neeson movies. It’s tempting to ask how the whole movie can’t be that funny, but nothing could be consistently that funny. Comedy doesn’t work that way. Like a lot of comedy movies I’ve been watching lately, there’s half an hour of good stuff bravely trying to prop up another hour of filler and misfires; the question is always whether the good stuff is good enough to wait for.

On balance, not really. The first movie is better, and the second one doesn’t add anything you really need - if anything, it makes you more likely to dislike the characters you kind of liked in the first one. And yet, in one way you’d probably need to watch it more than once just to parse out all the connections and callouts to other work. There’s a ninety second shot of a marijuana farm which gets in references to both Jurassic Park and Contact, and I don’t even know what else I might have missed. And there’s a throwaway reaction shot of Amanda Seyfried looking just like Gollum which I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to unsee. Art is making you see the things which you wouldn’t have seen for yourself, so in that narrow sense, McFarlane is an artist.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Minions: lessons for us all

The principal lesson in Minions is that Minions are hilarious in tiny doses while something else is going on, but not enough to run their own movie. Just as actual Minions need a huge villain to give their lives meaning, Minions movies need a huge villain to give the movie some kind of centre. Since this is only obvious after the fact and everyone loves Minions, no-one gave Scarlet and Herb Overkill anything like enough to do, and Minions kind of putters along without really living up to the sheer fun we’d all hoped it could have been.

But there are some other things to ponder. Firstly, under my general operating statement that Hollywood movies exist primarily to market safe thinking to the masses, it’s good to see Hollywood get across the essential message that for Evil to prosper, all it needs is an unlimited supply of idiots doing the hard work. I’d gone to the movies to get away from reality, but there it was screaming at me from the screen anyhow.

Secondly, Minions is a much more important feminist movie than Spy (though that’s true of most things, I suppose). No, not because it’s got a female super villain. Not because it passes the Bechdel test - it barely has two named female characters - three if you count “The Queen” as a name and none of them have a conversation about about anything still less about something which isn’t a man. No, it’s because it examines the appeal of the psycho asshat.

It’s a banal trope of popular psychology that Chicks Dig Jerks, but it’s rare that popular culture takes the time to walk us through just how beguiling jerks are. Half-assed theories abound; that psychopaths charm us because they don’t care what lies they tell or unkept promises they make to get what they want, or that bullies prosper because it’s a tough world and when we weigh it up, we’d all like our own personal bastard to fend off the bigger bastards we fear lie beyond the bastards we can see. Whatever makes it work, wherever there’s a rampaging clown spreading misery and mayhem, there’s a cloud of people around him who just can’t get enough of it.

Minions, those little lovable yellow morons, just want to be that cloud of people. And the whole movie is about a) how deluded they are in seeing the appalling as appealing, and b) how much havoc they bring the bad guys while they’re just trying to help. I can’t figure out if the movie is trying to explain how well meaning people are attracted to terrible people who exploit them, or trying to cheer us up by suggesting that only idiots are taken in by charismatic villains, and that those idiots will be their undoing. 

In the cause of explaining whichever this is on offer, Minions punt T-rex into a volcano, get cro-magnon man eaten by a bear, flatten the Pharaoh with his own pyramid, vaporise Dracula and explode Napoleon, all while trying to help. Luckily exploding Napoleon pisses off the Imperial Guard enough to chase them into exile in Siberia for a century or so, so we don’t have to handle the industrial levels of awkward that would have attended their auditions to help out struggling Austrian art students and failed Georgian seminarians. They only emerge from hibernation in 1968, when Kevin, Bob and Stuart head off to find a new boss in the land of opportunity. Unaccountably ignoring a Nixon election poster, they follow a trail of breadcrumbs to Orlando and fall under the spell of Scarlet Overkill, and that’s the rest of the movie, more or less.

And it’s fun, don’t get me wrong. It can’t not be fun. But much like the Spongebob movie, it’s the kind of fun which doesn’t work as well in the long haul. The opening montage of bosses is great fun because it’s rapid fire jokes squashed into a tiny space, but once we settle down to the Scarlet Overkill plot, there’s somehow not enough Scarlet and not enough Minions to keep the movie up to expectations. It often feels like there’s a long time between moments of reckless hilarity, no matter how many throwaway gags pop up. An all-Minons movie seemed like a great idea in theory, but so did all-purple packs of Fruit Gums till I tried to eat them all. 

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Jurassic World; Star Lord Can't Save You Now

More is less. The more Jurassic we get, the less point there is to it all. Like so many other sequels, it’s not how much bread you’ve got, it’s what you’ve got to spread over it. And Jurassic was only ever one idea; “Hey, what if we brought dinosaurs back and put them in a theme park?” The first movie demonstrated that it would be an objectively terrible idea, and nothing that’s happened since has asked any new questions or thrown up any smart answers to the old one. Dinosaurs in a theme park is an idiotic idea, and then there’s the running and the screaming. Or in a line which Chris Pratt just throws away early on; “Dinosaurs. Wow enough."

I honestly can’t decide if the movie is commenting on its own intellectual bankruptcy; the plot is pretty much:- long running franchise wants to get more bums on seats, so clones new versions of its old successes, which get loose, go on the rampage and destroy the franchise. So the plot, so what’s actually happening to the Jurassic idea its very self. And since it opened strongly and will make its money back, in a couple of years they’ll be trying to find another explanation for how anyone smart enough to get hold of enough money to re-build a people-shredding theme-park could be dumb enough to spend that much money that way.

So; theme part full of dinosaurs? check; moppets in peril? check; well-meaning but misguided corporate overlord? check; sinister corporate forces up to no good? check; knowledgeable hero to save the day? check - and so on. It’s pretty much a remake of the third movie, which was a remake of the first movie, which was - perhaps - where it might have been smart to stop. Apart from anything else, though they had all the money in the world for CGI dinosaurs, they didn’t get anything like the line-up of B-movie character actors that Jurassic Park threw at the problem, and so they wound up hoping that Chris Pratt could somehow be both Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill simultaneously while also channeling Bob Peck. Chris Pratt has been blossoming lately, but no-one could blossom that much.

Jurassic World isn’t a terrible movie; Chris Pratt saves most of the scenes that he’s in, and everyone else at least hits their marks. The spectacle’s all in place and a lot of it works. But there’s a sense of oh, man, here we go again. There’s a climactic fight with a T-Rex and a bunch of raptors which goes on too long and just reminds us that the first one did everything which needed to be done with that idea. And just as they make their dinosaurs by splicing in the DNA of other animals, the script writers bulked out the plot with DNA from other franchises, stealing its doomed marines with headsets straight out of Aliens at the same time that they nicked that franchise’s preoccupation with building creepy man-eating animals for the military.

Which brings me back to Chris Pratt. Weirdest Navy Seal ever. At no point does anyone even make a stab at explaining how a Navy Seal is somehow trying to train raptors to sit up and beg for puppy treats. We just have to surf that on a wave of Pratt-ian charm. Pratt turns on about forty percent of the schtick which made Star Lord work and hopes for the best …. The whole notion of a raptor whisperer who has trained a pack of raptors to go hunting with him was cool enough to drag me into the cinema almost against my will, but instead of running with that idea, it’s just a thing which happens around the edges of yet more corporate hubris building a great big monster which eats all the guests at the theme park. Guys, you had an actual new plot! Nah, let’s just go with science doing things it shouldn’t do.

Speaking of science, whatever about biology and biochemistry, physics is obviously suspended from duty in the area around Isla Nublar. The movie has four raptors in play, and in the last act, they get run over, hit by anti tank rockets, hurled into walls hard enough to break the wall, bitten in half by bigger dinosaurs and chucked into gas explosions. No matter what happens to them, there are always three of them left. I expected them to start drifting round corners in souped up Hondas

But; you can’t argue with the numbers. The movie made back its budget before the end of the first weekend. There will be another one. Chucked in around the dino-fights at the end, there’s even a pretty broad hint at what it will be about, as sinister military contractors leg it from the scene with vials of priceless dino-DNA.