Monday, 31 August 2015

Inside Out

It's hard to think of something to say about a good movie. there have been weeks when this blog has been silent not so much out of respect for great work, but because the only good stories are those of disaster and setback, and Hollywood has for once left me nothing to build on. Pixar are swines that way, endlessly producing movies too good for the likes of me. Inside Out is more of the same.

While it’s unlikely that Pixar are ever going to beat the wordless gut punch of Up's opening five minutes, Inside Out is arguably a better movie overall. Like all the best work the studio has produced, it's really a meditation on loss and how to deal with it, carefully wrapped up in a goofy animation full of jokes. Pretty much the only quibble you could possibly have with the movie is that five emotions isn't anything like enough for the inside of the average grown-up head.

I read somewhere that at one point the script had 26 emotions, and then the law of narrative simplicity cut in, and started slashing right and left until they had something which anaudience could keep track of. They were probably right. No matter that the logic of the initial set up should have given us a positive crowdscene in Reilly's parents' heads, the movie would have been impossible to follow if they'd gone with that. So Reilly starts off with just one emotion, Joy, and develops four more later, and her parents, after twenty more years of life have still only got five; yeah, sure it'snot logical, but we've got a story to tell here. And the contrastsbetween the different versions of Joy, Sadness and Anger in all three heads would have been lost if there'd been a whole crowd of other adult emotions clamouring for space.

The big story works. And as always with Pixar, the incidental details are golden. Sure, the five emotions are in charge up in the controlroom, but all the grunts down in the basement moving things around have just as much life and character as the major players. There isn’t a wasted moment; every second on screen earns its place with a joke or a moment of insight - or more likely, a joke which doubles as a moment of insight.

And in an inspired bit of "always leave them asking for more" the movie ends with a pan around the inside of the heads of a load of the side characters, all with their own takes on the five emotions we've got to know (my favourite being a bus driver, all five of whose emotions are just different coloured versions of Anger). I’ve no idea what a sequel could even be about, but I wanted one right there.

Trainwreck; not the sequel to Unstoppable

Just as with Bridesmaids, there's an impulse to see Trainwreck as a game changer; oh, look, it's a movie with a woman at the centre, written by a woman, which messes with the traditional view of women in a romantic comedy. I am here to tell you not to give in to the impulse.

Trainwreck is great fun and a genuinely good comedy and it might even change men’s minds about things, but this is a man's movie. Specifically, it's Judd Apatow's movie. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I quite like Apatow's crusade to depict men as befuddled but nonetheless capable of emotional intelligence. Just because it's not true to the lives most of us experience doesn't mean it's not a good aspiration to put out there. As goals for men go, being sweet and trying to understand the world around you is a much better unrealistic role model than being a wisecracking murder machine.

It's just impossible to resist pointing out the obvious; that a woman has written a movie which is a comic exaggeration of aspects of her own life and it still fails the Bechdel Test. Yes, there's more than one named woman character, and yes, two or more woman characters have a conversation. Many conversations. And they're all about men, either men in particular (which Johnny Depp is the most bangable, or what’s wrong with their father or husband or boyfriend) or men in general (pretty much every conversation around the worktable at Amy's job).

And I don't know what to tell you to think about this; much like the real life it's trying to comment on, it's one of those things which is there, and you've got to decide for yourself whether this is just the way things are, or whether it's an outrage against human decency which cannot stand. I suspect that the whole joke of the movie is that Amy is acting just like a stereotypical man, and all the men are acting like stereotypical women, but that overall joke doesn't land properly because men acting like women, it turns out, is touching rather than ridiculous while Amy acting like a man plays like an extended slut-shaming than a critique of the male outlook. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve, and so I can't even figure out what they've actually done in gender political terms. Hey; I'm a guy. We don't really get subtext.

It's still a good comedy. Amy Schumer can't really act (when someone is routinely out-acted by Lebron James it's not unfair to decide that acting is not their dominant hand), but it's her script so she's safe most of the time in the hands of dialogue which fits her comic persona. Tilda Swinton delivers either her second or third most terrifying performance (depending on whether you think that she's as scary in Michael Clayton as she was in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), and Judd Apatow has strong form in getting sympathetic performances out of the most unlikely male casts so everyone over on the male side does a solid job. There's a moment near the end when Bill Hader is trying to explain how arguments are supposed to work which ought to become a permanent part of pre-marriage courses; he almost makes arguments sound like fun, he's so sincere in his belief that they're an opportunity, not something to be avoided.

Above all, it's funny. They had so much good material that the trailer is made out of the jokes they didn't use in the movie.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Man from UNCLE; the origin story we didn't ask for

The Man from UNCLE is a perfectly OK movie. But.

On the one hand, enough with the origin stories. If Mission Impossible didn’t need an origin story (except in the general sense that apparently Tom Cruise didn’t want to be “Jim Phelps” and so he had to have a personal origin story as “Ethan Hunt”), then neither does any big screen attempt to reboot any other TV show. It’s a TV show. Anyone overcome with curiosity about its background can look it up on the internet. You can probably torrent the whole of the original show in less time than it takes to watch the new movie. Not that I’m saying you should, or anything.

On the other, much more important, hand, what on earth has Guy Ritchie done to Ilya Kuryakin? It’s as though they’d cast Arnie as Mr Spock and told him to dial up the brute factor as far as it could go. It’s nice to see Armie Hammer getting any work after the crater that Lone Ranger made, and my hat’s off to him for making his character sympathetic despite the writing, but if you’re going to revive a TV show character defined by his dry intellect … 

I can only conclude that Ritchie decided that Napoleon Solo was going to be the urbane witty one, so contrast required that Kuryakin be a beast from the planet Mongo. Because audiences are that stupid. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that we might perhaps have managed to tell the difference between glib and deep. 

In simpler terms; if you’re nostalgic about the TV show, don’t go to this movie, which will just annoy you. If you just want to pass a couple of hours having fun at the movies, it’s surprisingly OK. The opening escape from East Berlin is very well done. It’s not just that all the technology is properly retro, but that it’s used intelligently by the characters. It’s always fun to see smart people getting things right, and with good direction and pacing, a clever plan can be every bit as exciting as the farrago of things going wrong which usually passes for action these days. There are other nice touches, like having Kuryakin’s doomed speedboat escape attempt in the middle of the movie happen mostly off-screen while Solo helps himself to someone else’s packed lunch. A pity they didn’t apply the same kind of thinking to the climactic car chase, which is a lot less thrilling than the speedboat chase probably would have been and would have benefited greatly from happening off-screen while we did something else.

For the rest, it’s a fun. How much fun will depend on your tolerance for Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer trying to one-up each other with outdated spy tech, which is funnier than it ought to be, but not as funny as Ritchie thought it would be. The whole thing ends with their show reel for the sequel we’re probably never going to get, which is bad news for Hugh Grant’s hopes for a happy retirement and good news for Alicia Vikander fans who will now see her lots of different good movies instead of once very two years in blockbusters.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Mission:Impossible - Rogue Nation; coming soon to a Ryanair near you


RYANAIR announces new premium “Tom Cruise Seating” on selected flights to European destinations.

I am indebted to Scott Meyer for the insight that the Mission Impossible movies should really be called “Tom Cruise: The Dangler”; I had thought that Tom’s schtick was a mixture of running and grinning, but now I see he’s got a sideline in hanging off stuff. Also, as Scott points out, they might as well not be called Mission Impossible in the first place because every damn time the Impossible Mission Force is being disbanded rather than getting missions. These are smarter points than anything I’d managed to come up with; they’re probably smarter than most of the things in the actual movie.

I made the mistake of bringing a little too much movie awareness to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, [1] so that when I noticed that half the production companies involved were Chinese, I sat through the rest of the movie waiting for a big ticket action sequence set in China. Don’t make the same mistake. As Chinese as it gets is a performance of Turandot half way through the set up, which looks as though the Vienna Statsoper did their stage design by way of a series of pre-dawn raids on Chinese restaurants somewhere in the 19th district. So, no China doesn’t have anything to do with the action, though people who are missing William Randolph Hearst can ponder the thought that a movie about a threat to the American way had to be bankrolled by China. The rest of us can just laugh at the idea that the villains of the piece are “an anti-IMF”, which is going to complicate the marketing in all kinds of German colonies.

It’s important not to expect Mission Impossible movies to make any kind of sense, because that kind of thing would just distract you from the stunts. So, don’t even think about the fact that the McGuffin this time around is the world’s biggest Amex card despite the fact that the Syndicate shows no signs of needing any money to maintain a positively ludicrous level of operational readiness. After all, we’ve all seen how apparently rich people turn out to be completely broke as soon as anyone is crass enough to ask them to pay their bills. The Syndicate probably has the same problems. Though it’s certainly not looking at any kind of pension fund shortfall; like every other bunch of super villains in Hollywood history, the Syndicate’s human resources strategy is long on suicide missions and short on employee retention, and like every other Dr Evil ever, the head villain is one of those clowns who shoots otherwise perfectly useful staff to make a point to the ones he can’t trust. No wonder evil always loses; this is no way to attract and retain the kind of talent a world class world domination plan requires.

Tom gets his dangling out of the way early, hanging off the outside of an Airbus, in a move which no doubt has Michael O’Leary wondering whether he can charge extra to do the same thing for some lucky passengers next year. It’s a pretty cool stunt, even if you don’t know that it was done for realsies. It works partly because it’s a scary looking stunt in the middle of a great piece of workplace comedy as everyone else in the Impossible Mission team argues about how to stop the plane from taking off with all the nerve gas on board. Which is pretty much the template for the Mission Impossible movies these days; everyone who isn’t Tom Cruise bickers entertainingly while Tom Cruise does something physically dangerous that somehow solves the problem everyone else is arguing about. Sadly, that opening stunt sets the bar too high for the rest of the movie, so that the climax feels like a damp squib even though it’s actually a pure Mission Impossible TV show ending, trapping in the chief villain in a glass box by outwitting him rather than by dropping half London on his head the way a Marvel movie would.

Single saddest performance in the movie; Jeremy Renner’s perma-wrinkled forehead seems to be less a matter of acting and more a matter of wondering how the hell he keeps being the fifth wheel in franchise movies. Joint second place goes to everyone in the Syndicate for having a job that consists of being on screen for just long enough to get killed by Tom Cruise. Prize for stealing all of Jeremy Renner’s karma goes to Simon Pegg, who is enjoying the most improbable career ever playing roles which ought to have serious actors in them (like, I dunno, Jeremy Renner) but instead have a nerdy comedian. Knocking it out of the park, I have to admit, but it’s still weird. 

[1] They nearly pulled off a punctuation mark between every pair of words...