Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Rogue One: Star Wars just can't help itself

On paper Rogue One was a great idea; a scrappy little stand alone movie built out of a single throw away line in the very first Star Wars movie about how a lot of brave resistance agents died to get the plans of the Death Star. There was such a lot packed into that line for a generation of kids who had grown up on WWII movies; agents behind the lines skipping from shadow to shadow, never knowing when betrayal will cut the operation out from under them. When I heard about Rogue One, I imagined it was going to be that kind of movie; low key and menacing, full of character moments and the kind of personal tension that makes things like the sacher torte scene in Inglourious Basterds so iconic.

This was not that movie. Its DNA comes from things like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, with a generous dash of the downbeat fictions of the same era where the bad guys killed all the good guys before losing anyway. There is a lot of action. Damned nearly non stop action. And the movie chews through the cast like an unfenced buzz saw. Nobody is getting out of this alive, even though it takes a while for the movie to hammer home the point that it’s committed to delivering on the idea of lot of brave resistance agents dying.

The problem with non stop action is that it doesn’t really give the characters enough time to develop their relationships, whether with each other or with the audience. By the time a whole platoon of jaded special forces commandos follow Jyn Erso to certain death, we ought to have some idea why they thought that was a good idea. But she’s done nothing to earn that loyalty yet, at least nothing that the audience has seen. She’s been too busy running and ducking and occasionally fighting. We get a pretty good sense of Jyn as a person - what we never see is how anyone else would have been inspired by that person, or even made a connection to her. 

And, you know, we’re running flat out here. There isn’t a lot of time to think, hey, that doesn’t make all that much sense. But I saw Rogue One twice in the space of four days, so I could come at it the second time in a more reflective frame of mind. And of all the many little niggles which I would inevitably have with a blockbuster, that’s the one which sticks with me. Felicity Jones is really good; probably the one actor given enough room to build a character with more than one note in it, and good enough that you can tell from squinting through a gap in her helmet visor that she’s terrified of what’s coming next. No-one else gets the time to hit more than one note. I’m pretty sure they could have done more; they just don’t get the time or they don’t get the lines.

But wow, in places it looks great. The last three quarters of an hour are spent on the beach, and it’s a look Star Wars has never tried before, all greenery and fine sand and clear blue light instead of the dusty desert planets and dreary bog worlds of other movies in the series. I think it’s supposed to be a contrast with the combat scenes, but it’s also a huge contrast to everything else in the film canon. 

But there are things which it seems Star Wars can’t resist. There’s a space battle. Which of course requires something impossible to be hit somehow by star fighters (spoiler, they don’t hit it). It’s lavish and spectacular and probably cost a fortune, and it looks completely out of place in what ought to be a gritty movie about an undercover mission going massively wrong. This should have been a Star Wars movie which wasn’t like a Star Wars movie, but it’s like they couldn’t stop themselves from putting in the familiar business for the climax.

None of which is to say that this is a bad movie. I enjoyed it and it gets a lot right. There’s a scene stealing performance from Alan Tudyk as K2-SO, a deadpan droid who is funny without being a catchphrase machine. It would have been so easy to make him another C3-PO and source of comic relief, but instead he’s a grumpy presence who gets the occasional barbed line (personal favourite “I’ll be there for you. The Captain said I had to.”) And although the plot doesn’t really make all that much sense, the movie does come up with a convincing reason why the Death Star was built with a massive vulnerability, which kind of makes up for the fact that the Imperial plan for everything seems to be “blow it up and to hell with the casualties”. I could take that in my stride when it was an occupied moon that was clearly more trouble than it was worth, but it got a bit harder to understand when it involved demolishing a key data storage facility full of their own men and priceless information. And although it seemed kind of forced, the closing minute stitches the movie almost seamlessly into the opening of the original Star Wars. If it had been a Marvel film, it would have been an after the credits scene. Luckily Lucasfilm aren’t jerks.

The story goes that there were massive reshoots and rewrites towards the end of production, and I can’t help wondering what the movie might have looked like before the money men panicked and asked - I imagine - for more of what the audiences are used to. Maybe the DVD release will clear some of that up. Maybe the quieter movie I wanted will be hiding in the extras.


Post-script: Maybe the extras will also cover the writerly joke embedded in Ben Mendelsohn’s job title. The bad guy that even the other bad guys despise; hemmed in by bigger bosses looking for results; depending on real geniuses - who he exploits, humiliates and eventually kills - if he’s to get anything done; eclipsed by archetypal monsters and at the mercy of a CGI villain whose whims decide what he can do, before being destroyed in the end by the thing he ruined everything to build, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Director Krennick.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Adam Hamdy: Pendulum

Sometimes a book is good, and sometimes it’s not good. And sometimes, it’s something which feels like it could have been good. Pendulum  is one of those books. There’s a perfectly good book in there about how much it would suck in real life to be the victim of a botched serial killing. It opens with the protagonist being hanged by some obvious loon, dodging death by sheer chance, and jumping out of a window before the killer makes up any ground. Jumping out windows hurts, which is why it hasn’t been on my to-do list in simply ages, and running off to the police to explain that some loon tried to hang you leads to stays in hospitals of various kinds, not to mention strait jackets and all kinds of drugs which might be fun if you were taking them at your own preferred pace.

As long as the book is about how a pretty ordinary schlub is out of his depth dealing with lunacy, it’s a pretty good idea. It’s not super-well-written, but at least there’s something here which hasn’t been tried before, and Hamdy is doing his level best to get across the sheer awfulness of the character’s predicament.

If only Hamdy had stuck to that. But there’s more, much much more. On the one hand - spoiler alert - the book is really about the menace of a social media, and specifically Facebook. On the other hand, about every forty minutes all hell breaks loose and a whole bunch of people get killed. Every forty minutes? That seems curiously specific. Was I sitting there with a stopwatch? No, I was sitting there with a lifetime’s worth of pop culture, shaking my head wearily as Hamdy kept thinking it was time to end the episode on a cliff hanger. Just as the world is filling up with people telling us that TV is becoming more novelistic, someone wrote a novel which felt the need to pace itself like a low-budget TV show. I don’t know what was going on there. Did Hamdy get told to cram in more action sequences, or did he get told to put some kind of novel either side of the action sequences? Or did he really think that both belonged together?

It’s a shame. There could have been a good book here. A much simpler book. A book set in England with a simple cat and mouse game with a loon and an ordinary guy trying to catch each other. Instead, there’s massive gunplay, an ocean spanning plot, a villain who is simultaneously omnipotent and an idiot, and a game of bingo for anyone who wants to read it going “Oh, that bit’s totally taken out of Speed!” whenever the plot goes into high budget mode.

Instead, the books can’t make its mind up about what it wants to be, and it winds up making no sense in all kinds of different directions. If the serial killer is just a creep getting his rocks off hanging people, then of course he needs a superhero costume and a mask. But if he’s actually a tortured anti-hero taking a complex revenge on people he despises, then it doesn’t make sense for him to dress up. He doesn’t really care what his victims think, and a costume is more trouble than it’s worth. And sure, it makes a great last act twist for the villain to be a guy with a bigger plan, but the bigger plan doesn’t make any sense of what’s been done up to now. And round and round it goes in circles.

I complain about all this because the book is at its best when it’s about the impact of wickedness. There’s a lot of work done here on the impact of trauma and the way the people are marked forever when they’re victims of violence. It ends on just that note. Hamdy had something to say here - something which doesn’t show up often enough in fiction - and it’s a shame that the fireworks are getting in the way.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Alex Gerlis: The Best of Our Spies

Having mentioned this in the course of venting about Allied, I feel like I ought to flesh it out a bit. Simply put, The Best of Our Spies is a much more plausible story about a German spy setting up with an Allied officer and trying to steal all his secrets. It’s low key, and low stakes, and nobody blows up hardly anything from one end of it to the other. It’s one of those books I read a little chunk at a time, as I often do when the characters have been put together and then put in harm’s way. It’s the book reading equivalent of squinting at things through your fingers. You get invested, the characters start to feel like real people, all trying to do their best, and you just can’t bear to keep on looking as things get worse for them.

There is no big mystery; from the beginning we know that the spy we’re calling Nathalie has been working for the Germans, and so do the British high command. She’s not going to get caught, because she’s been caught without ever knowing it, rumbled when her radio operator gets caught and turned. From that point on, British Intelligence are playing her like a banjo, manipulating her and the poor schmuck they marry her off to. The game is cynical and simple; sure, they could turn Nathalie too, but if they keep her in play, letting her think she’s still spying, the intelligence she provides to the German will have a sense of authenticity to it which couldn’t be faked.

Once the game’s afoot, the tension is not whether Nathalie will get caught; it’s what will happen when all the contradictions collapse around her. Will she survive? Will she somehow be able to keep the fake life she’s built with her clueless Allied stooge? And perhaps the biggest mystery of all; how the hell did she even get into this mess? That’s as big a puzzle, right up to the end, as how the hell she’s going to get out of it.

It’s not quite Alan Furst, because, after all, what is? But it’s solid, and it’s heartfelt, and it never seems fantastical.

It would have been a perfect source text for a good movie with Marion Cotillard and some worthwhile, unflashy British actor, a McAvoy or a Whishaw or a McGregor. It was what I was half hoping Allied would turn out to be. Instead, I think that Allied has probably made sure that this much better story is always just going to be a book.

Allied: Marion Cotillard would be ready if all she had was cutlery

Marion Cotillard automatically outclasses pretty much anything she’s in. She was so effortlessly good in Public Enemies that she’s more or less the only thing I remember from what was supposed to be Johnny Depp’s star vehicle. She is so good that her two best scenes don’t even have dialogue. She is, in fact, so good, that for as long as the camera is on her in Allied, you can forget that it’s balderdash at just about every level. Her final scene is, despite everything I’d already seen, still somehow a punch in the gut, because Cotillard is just that good. She makes silence devastating. She can even make you think that terrible dialogue is a real person lost for something to say.

Brad Pitt, in the meantime, has - at most - upped his “my wife just died” game from the miserable baseline he set in Se7en, where his reaction to finding Gwynneth Paltrow’s head in a delivery box seemed to be based on hazy memories of how a friend looked when their younger brother’s hamster had died. The rest of the time he’s playing a straight arrow, which is a good way to remind us that “normal” Brad Pitt is about one step up from an animatronic display at Disneyworld.

So it’s Cotillard’s movie, but in more ways than one. Allied is like someone had a perfectly good script about deep cover and betrayal, and someone - someone, let’s say, Pitt-shaped - wedged a low budget war thriller into it, ruining both ideas beyond repair. There’s Cotillard’s movie, which is all about whether she could possibly have seduced an Allied spy, married him, had a baby and all so that she could get access to Allied secrets and slip them to the Germans. Could that possibly be true, or have the paranoid loons of Section V have got it ridiculously wrong? And then there’s Brad Pitt’s movie, in which things explode and people get shot to bits and there’s excitement of a particularly teenage kind. Man, I wish it had just been Cotillard’s movie, not least because it seemed from the trailer that someone might have been trying to adapt Alex Gerlis’ The Best of Our Spies.

Or, you know, I’d have been fine with Pitt’s movie, since if it had just been that, it would have been Brad and Marion, together they fight Nazis. I wouldn’t even have worried that there was another better movie; there would have been explosions and a cool female lead, and I’m easily pleased. The trailer promises that, in its way. It could have been fun.

Alas, it was not to be. And with plot and the pacing all over the place, and the camera not staying on Marion like God intended, I had way too much time for my mind to wander and ponder how many things were just plain wrong.

Over on the Brad Pitt plot front; he parachutes into Morocco for his deadly mission, landing miles from anywhere and marching across the desert to be picked up a local driver and driven to Casablanca. Where he transforms into a Frenchman just in from Parism with all the papers and clothes for the role, and two Sten guns in a suitcase. Along the march he skylines himself on the dunes, just like he wouldn’t have been trained to; that bugged me a bit. But the rest of the plan is madder. Everything has been done to make him someone who’s just arrived in Casablanca, except for the bit where he arrives the way his papers say he should have. It’s a small town, from a French emigrĂ© perspective, and there’s a war on. How long is it going to be before someone asks why they never saw him coming through the port or the airport?

And then there’s the thing he came to do; he’s there to assassinate the German ambassador. On the one hand, in 1942, Vichy Morocco wouldn’t have rated an Ambassador; it would have had a consul at best. On the other hand, Ambassadors are useless. I don’t know how many of them you’d have to shoot to make a difference to anything. It’s a great peace-time move, since it’s a diplomatic incident and casus belli, but once you’ve got a war on anyhow, what’s the point?

Meanwhile the spying and betrayal plot is breathtakingly wrong; Brad Pitt is told his wife may be a spy, and if she is …. he must execute her by his own hand. What? This is Britain, April 1944. Every German spy in England had been caught, and turned, and they were being used relentlessly to sow disinformation in Germany about D-day. And now MI5 has found a possible extra asset who the Germans think they’ve got past the British completely? They’d no sooner have her executed than a five year old would shoot Santa on Christmas Eve. This is melodrama for the sake of melodrama, when they had an actress who could have handled actual drama. In reality MI5 would have turned her round, rolled up her network and used the whole boiling to reinforce the message that the invasion was going to hit Calais. And with a real actor, as opposed to Brad Pitt playing it straight, they could have had real drama from the marriage falling apart. Nah, we’ve got this nonsense, and Brad flying to France to get intelligence, and - oh man, it’s not even worth getting into it.

But it could all be happening in an alternate reality of some kind, since this is a London where the Blitz is well underway in 1943, and the Luftwaffe is mounting massive raids in April 1944. Or so I thought, until I checked and it turns out that Operation Steinbock was underway at the time and it even involved He 177s, so the ridiculously over the top air raid and crashed bomber in Brad and Marion’s back garden are historically just about plausible.  Damn. I’d been all set to hate on that. Oh well, I enjoyed my annoyance while I was having it.

One movie or the other would have been fine. The Brad Pitt one could have been thrilling. The Marion Cotillard one could have been a classic. Trying to do them both at the same time just ruined everything. But still, it was almost worth it to see Marion dismissively smack down Brad Pitt wondering if she could do with hit with a Sten. “I could do it if all I had was cutlery.” She could. I’d watch it.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to FInd Them; no room left for a ...

I’ve managed not to consume any Potterverse materials up until now. Not out of any particular antipathy to the work of the world’s richest author. It’s just that it would be a tonne of work to read all the books and watch all the movies, and they’ve been so culturally prevalent since I got back to Ireland and points north that it didn’t feel like I needed to do more than let it all wash past me. Like pretty much anyone with an internet connection, I’m broadly aware of Snape and Dumbledore and muggles and what-all, and nothing about any of it has left me feeling that I need more than the ability to recognise that someone else is now talking about the whole Potter thing, smile at the bit which is obviously supposed to be hilarious, and carry on with my life. Perhaps I’m missing out, but there’s a big world of books out there and time is limited. Millions of other people are reading those books; I think I can leave that job to them and get on with reading books which millions of people should be reading but unaccountably aren’t.

Still, this frigid week there was pretty much nothing going on at the cinema other than Fantastic Beasts, and it’s not like I’m actively opposed to that stuff. So I put my head round the door of the Potter-verse, as it were, and found myself about as underwhelmed as I thought I might be. There’s magic. There’s beasts. There’s special effects. There’s a peril all set to destroy New York, as bloody usual. There’s Eddie Redmayne, still on double secret super probation after this, where his performance was so feyly bonkers that I left out mentioning it for fear that my fingers would melt. There’s Ron Perlman, because why not? And a bunch of folks I’d never seen before, who I assumed were the young kids who’d sold their next ten years to the franchise because they wanted to be super-rich, together with a bunch of folks I had seen before, who I assumed - correctly - would get killed by the end of the movie to give it some kind of emotional stakes. Ta-ta Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell, I know you’ve got better things to do, or at least I hope you do. And hi there Johnny Depp, who has a blink and you’ll miss it cameo right at the end which might even mean that we’re finally going to be spared any more Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

How does it all look? It looks like someone wedged a bunch of magic into an expertly realised version of Depression-era New York, which is to say sepia with moments of way too much CGI. The cast give it their best shot, which is to say the best shot you can give things when it’s all kind of bollocks and everyone knows it. There are moments of real power; when Porpentina almost gets offed, it’s quite affecting, and also throws in the single best line in the movie “Don’t panic!” “What do you suggest I do instead?” I’ll ‘ave that, I will.

There are going to be four more of these movies, covering a span of 20 years and ending with the end of WWII, and a bit of me really wants to see just what that might do. Not a very big bit, I have to admit, and it’s drowned out by the much bigger bit which figures that it won’t do much that’s any real use, since these are all prequels and nothing can happen to disrupt future history. 

And it was mulling on that which got me grumping about the subtext of all these movies. Just like superhero movies, it’s always the same narrative; there’s a big crowd of ordinary people and their elected representatives, who are just the worst, and there’s a little gang of wonder-children, who are just the best. And they’re just the best not because they’ve really worked hard or made a useful difference to the world, or done anything for other people, but because they were born talented. Or rich. Or rich and talented. But no-one appreciates their talents and the world is against them, and they have to hide their talents and keep the mob at bay. And in theory their talents could make everything so much better, but in practice they just wreck everything in squabbles with other badder talents, and in the end either everything is in ruins or it’s the same old status quo; nothing ever gets any better. Stop me if any of this reminds you of anything which has happened in the last month.

And I’m getting tired of this approach; not just weary with the reliance on just one damn story, but with the way in which a whole generation of people are growing up with this story being drummed into them from every side; the elite are wonderful victims of the faceless mob, and politicians and bureaucrats are all scoundrels who either incite the mob or pander to them. And really, I don’t care how much money JK Rowling is giving to charities off the back of the profits on this; it’s time she started telling a new story.

Sunday, 20 November 2016


Last year I saw Sicario, and it struck me as a weird movie where the centre of the story wasn’t so much a woman as the way that a woman was gradually moved away from what was happening so that men could get on with doing something terrible. That might feel strangely evocative of things which happened this year, but that’s not what this post, or any other post, is going to be about.

Arrival is instead a movie with a woman right in the middle of it, and the focus never really comes off her. Luckily, they hired Amy Adams. I can’t prove this, but I think you could point a camera at Amy Adams while she was doing her nails and it would get you something unexpected which could make the centre of a whole movie. There are other people in the movie - Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, for example - but it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just guys around the edges of a woman trying to figure out what seven legged space aliens are talking about.

After I saw the movie, I read the Ted Chiang short story it’s based on, and it’s a surprisingly good adaptation. It’s not actually a faithful adaptation, because the story is much more low key and evocative. In the short story, Louise is trying to come to terms with what she learned about the world and what matters when she was trying to learn a foreign language. In the movie, inevitably, Louise is trying to save the world. Because it’s apparently impossible to get funding for a science fiction movie, no matter how simple, unless it involves the fate of the world. Which has to rest on one lone maverick resisting the patriarchy.

But, I hear you say, Hollywood won’t give you the money to make a spectacle unless you give them a story they can understand. Sure, yeah, right. But the source text isn’t spectacular. A faithful adaptation could have been done for Doctor Who money, or even Midnight Special  money. Villeneuve could have put the exact story Chiang wrote right onto the screen, and with Amy Adam carrying the narrative, it would still have worked. However, I suspect that it might still have made a loss, because the general public won’t go to an SF movie unless it looks spectacular. John and I were in a packed house, which wasn’t the case when we went to Midnight Special.

And although I might have preferred a low key movie, something truer to the spirit of the story, that’s not to say it isn’t a good looking movie; the spectacle works, and the thriller-y moments probably do make it a more audience friendly film. The alien ships are startling, and they’re ambiguous; you can see them as whatever you want to. And while the alien writing doesn’t make a button of sense, it’s still great looking when it happens. And for all I know, it’s an alien powerpoint presentation and I shouldn’t be as worried as I was about how perfect coffee ring splotches appear out of nowhere and float in the mist. On the one hand, impossible to figure out how it happened, on the other hand, terrible as a way of writing anything so that people could read it. But if you imagine it as seven legged Steve Jobs making a pitch, a little less idiotic. Of course, there’s another explanation, but that would be giving the game away about what the movie is really about.

The real reason I wish they had filmed the story as written is that where the movie works best is as a meditation on loss, and the way in which the grief of loss is tied up so completely in the joy of all that came before the loss. What matters, in the end, is the totality of the experience, and how you cannot have one without the other. A movie which could have devoted itself entirely to that might not have been a spectacle, but it would have been spectacular.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Accountant; a pilot for a TV show we're never going to see

He’s an autistic accountant! He’s a sadistic assassin! Together they fight capitalism! 

No, I suppose not. But as The Accountant wrapped up with almost pathological tidiness, I was finding it hard not to imagine it as a feature length pilot for a crime show coming our way on HBO. Tragically, I’d watch the hell out of that; there’s a moment when Jon Bernthal was explaining to a shady futures trader just WHY it was wrong to short stocks and ruin pension funds, and I was thinking “We need this as a whole series of public service announcements on prime time TV.” I quite like the thought of a show which airs once a week and is all about rich scumbags getting spanked to a sound track of explanations of why a spanking is just a good start on what they really deserve. Probably not going to happen in the USA in the next couple of years, I imagine.

It’s an uneven movie. Sometimes it’s all about how hard it is to live with a developmental disorder no matter how clever it makes you. Sometimes it’s all about how you can make a bad childhood worse by adding military nutcases to the mix. And sometimes it’s just merrily sociopathic fun as Ben Affleck gets medieval on the bad guys like it isn’t even a thing. Bonus points for the bit where he tortures information out of a guy by telling him to grunt when Ben says the right name for the big bad, lets off the pressure just enough to let him grunt and says “Practice.” In moments like that, it’s almost a fun dumb Jason Statham style crowdpleaser, for all that it probably thought it was aiming much higher.

It’s just crawling with talent. I’ve got a lot of time for Ben Affleck, who’s long struck me as a guy who’s got a realistic sense of what he can do, and picks roles which work for his range. He was surprisingly good in Gone Girl, because he’s pretty convincing as someone who might be a nice guy OR a good looking asshole with a winning manner. He’s OK in this too, though I’m not sure how much of an effort it is for anyone to play emotionless badass. Far more impressive on the talent front are the likes of John Lithgow and JK Simmons, both playing old guys past their prime who turn out to be a lot more complicated than they look.

Above all, it’s incredibly densely packed. There’s nothing in this movie which isn’t going to be used more than one way. Nothing goes to waste. Nothing you see at the beginning is just left there; it will be back in play by the end. And it ought to feel contrived - it IS contrived - but it’s somehow satisfying as all the pieces fit into place. So watch carefully. It all fits together quite elegantly, just like the jigsaw puzzle that young Ben Affleck is putting together at the beginning of the movie. It’s not great cinema, but it’s nice to see something put together so well.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Dr Strange; don't text and drive

Or, you know, DO text and drive, and then get in a horrible accident and lose the use of your hands so that you go to Kathmandu and study the mystical arts and become the Sorcerer Supreme. Marvel’s just worried enough that people might take that message from Dr Strange that the very last credit is a warning to drive responsibly. I’m struggling to visualise the exact demographic which would be tipped into responsibility by just that one line. People who go to Marvel movies and stay all the way to the end of the credits to see whether there’s an end credit gag and are also terrible drivers impressionable enough that the ecstasy of seeing Baron Mordo cripple a guy for giggles will prime them to change their whole driving style as soon as the credits tell them to.

On the other hand, I drove for four hours the next day and didn’t text once. Just like every other time I’ve driven a car, but who knows? Maybe that was going to be the day I finally turned into a typical driver and Marvel saved me from my worst impulses. I guess we’ll never know.

As always, Marvel has hired in a bunch of good actors and then given them a load of guff to react to. I’d been hoping that the ‘Batch would save it, but his preparation for the role seems to have consisted of getting Robert Downey Jr to impersonate House MD while they were both having too much to drink. The one actor who seems to be both having a good time and actually taking the material seriously is Tilda Swinton, probably the only actor in the world who needs to dial her weirdness down in order to fit into a Marvel movie. Her Ancient One is just good fun; when she says something clever, it sounds like she just thought of it, rather than it being a line someone wrote to be funny. (perfect example from the trailer, when Mordo gives Strange a mysterious word on a piece of parchment and tells him it’s the WiFi password, because “we’re not savages”.)

As always with these things, there’s an origin story, and it’s a clueless apprentice who despite being completely terrible in every way at everything which ought to matter is somehow the most important person in the world, and before the movie is over he has to save the whole world from dark forces. Cue CGI explosions and all the usual guff. And there’s a whole load of CGI of buildings warping and transforming because that’s the way they’ve decided that dimensional movement ought to look. It’s as if someone saw Inception and said “What if we could just do that and nothing else for the whole movie?”, a question which ought to have got the answer “It would just remind people that Inception was a much better film.” before anyone wrote a cheque for 168 million dollars. The CGI is not terrible - it’s not even as terrible as the trailer made it look. But it’s not doing anything in service of the plot. It’s exactly like a kaleidoscope; for a few minutes the constantly changing images are interesting, and then you realise that they’re just images that change without ever going anywhere or meaning anything. Too much of the time modern movies seem to be a demo reel of things which CGI houses can do, rather than a story in which the CGI serves the plot.

Anyhow, whether you liked it or not, there’s no escaping it; there are setups for Strange to be in the next Thor movie (Chris Hemsworth continues to be far more amazing as Thor than he has any right to be) and then a whole sequel of his very own. And presumably beached in the middle of all that guff there will be the occasional transcendent moment like Mad Mikkelson shrugging at Strange’s pettish insistence that people get his name right and saying “Perhaps. Who am I to judge?” almost as though he’s weighing up his own decision to take Marvel’s paycheque.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Claire North: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The inside of Claire North’s head is a strange place. She has the knack of coming up with weird high-concept scenarios combined with the talent to make them sing on the page. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was a weird take on reincarnation, Touch was a weird take on possession, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope is - well, I’m not sure what it’s a take on. The Invisible Man? Depression? Social anxiety?

What’s impressive about all this is the sheer consistency of it all; North is banging out a weird novel with a weird hook reliably once a year, and there hasn’t been any real fall-off in the quality of the writing. The characters still work, the writing is good without getting in the way of the reading, and the plotting is - well, honestly, plotting’s not her strong suit, or maybe it’s pacing; either way her books tend to end in a rush.

The big difference between Hope and the two earlier novels is that the bad guys are independent of the high concept. In Harry August and Touch, the narrator’s troubles come from other people with the same talents that he has. But Hope Arden’s problem is the kind of problem which makes conspiracy impossible. If no-one can remember you, you can do all kinds of things, but you can’t really form a club. Well, if you wanted to cheat, you could. You could have a world in which ordinary people couldn’t remember you, but your own kind could. That would have put Hope right into the same wheelhouse as the two earlier books, as a small coterie of parasites fell out about the best ways to exploit the herd.

North didn’t want to go there; she wanted Hope to be utterly alone. But then she needed something for Hope to push back against, so for the first time she needed a second concept in a book, something which Hope could fight. What she settled on was a creepy intensification of Facebook crossed with a creepy intensification of Weightwatchers. On the one hand a social media app which watches everything you do, and on the other hand a system for making you feel bad about yourself so that you’ll eat the right foods. For values of right which are more about selling you branded goods than making you eat healthily.

More than ever, North is taking a look at modern society and not liking what she sees. Perfection, the app in Hope, is a perfectly plausible extrapolation of stuff we’re doing right now. Perfection the company isn’t even an extrapolation; it’s a perfectly unremarkable specimen of capitalism. And there’s nothing all that novel about making money out of making people feel bad about themselves; it’s pretty much the established business model for every women’s magazine and all the companies which advertise in them. As if there’s any real distinction between the magazine and the advertising.

Hope is the more interesting thing. It doesn’t do us any harm to be reminded as often as possible about the rapacity of the marketing and internet businesses, but how often are we going to meet someone who no-one can remember? Hope’s a tricky character to put on the page. Harry August and the nameless narrator in Touch were engaging bounders; well, I’m being a bit unfair to Harry there. But they had a predicament which they could control and exploit. Hope is a victim of something she can’t change or even understand, condemned to a kind of solitary confinement which should have driven her completely crazy. Since no-one can remember her, she can steal anything she wants to; if she gets caught, the person who catches her will forget about her as soon as they look away. Handy. Until you realise that it’s a death sentence if she’s admitted to hospital, because no-one will remember to check on her or change dressings or even feed her. Hope’s life is almost impossible, and North has a constant struggle to balance that impossibility with cunning workarounds which will somehow let Hope get by from day to day. I did find myself wondering about driving, though it’s not as though most drivers seem to be aware of other road users even without Hope’s unique problems.

As always, it’s just a good book. There are things which don’t quite work, and the ending is rushed, yet again, but the writing’s equal to the concept, and that makes all the difference. I’ve gone past hoping North can keep it up; clearly she can. Now I’m just waiting patiently for her to do it again next year

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Everything you need is in the title

$68 million. If you’ve ever wondered what $68 million looks like, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is not going to be much help. That’s what the reported budget was, and I defy you tell me how it made it onto the screen. Unless Producer Tom Cruise conducted a tense negotiation with Star Tom Cruise and when they were finished there was a loose handful of small denomination bills left to pay for the rest of the cast, the stunts and whatever else they thought they might be doing. The writing had already been paid for; Lee Child may not be Shakespeare, but you can pretty much film any of his books straight from the page.

When I watched the first attempt to sell Tom as Reacher, I called it something on the lines of a perfectly presentable couple of episodes of a TV cop show no-one was ever going to get excited about. Almost incredibly, Never Go Back comes in well under that bar. There’s a couple of fights, a car chase with less thrills and spills than the one with OJ in it, and a Hummer gets blown up in an Afghanistan flashback (the most technically impressive thing about that was they somehow found a piece of Louisiana which could double for the sandbox). And running. Just so much running. It’s hard to believe two experienced military investigators don’t realise how conspicuous it is to be the only people running in a crowded street. I have watched bad TV pilots with more action in them. In fact, I have just watched a ten minute ad for Beemers with more action in it. There’s not a lot of excitement (1) on offer, and there isn’t much in the line of fun characterisation and dialogue to make up for it. Nor is there much of a plot; it’s pretty much Reacher beats his way through yet another cookie-cutter conspiracy by sinister corporate forces to smuggle heroin out of a war zone. Why is the US forever going to war near places which ship wagon loads of heroin?

In an effort to bulk it up to two whole episodes of TV, there’s a B plot where Reacher may or may not have a long lost daughter, who provides a handy hazard moppet cum streetwise accomplice for him as he bashes his way to the answer. If anything it just ups the sense that this is a double length pilot for the Reacher and Turner show, where two mismatched military cops will fight crime while trying to look after the troubled teen neither of them wanted, neither of knows what to do with and neither can help bonding with.

Tom Cruise continues to nail the basic attitude of Reacher, 24/7 asshole, without being continuously convincing as anyone’s idea of a man mountain. When Ed Zwick remembers to keep the camera low and shoot him against landscape, Cruise briefly towers on the screen. Then one of the other cast walks into shot and the illusion is shattered. When I wasn’t wondering what I was going to have for dinner, I found myself imagining what might have happened if they’d given Peter Jackson $68 million and let him use weird sets and forced perspective to make Cruise tower over hobbits like Cobie Smulders (who is exactly the same height if you believe the people who say Tom Cruise ISN’T five foot seven but a whole five foot eight). Maybe that can be Jack Reacher: The Hard Way, which is totally the title they need to use to describe the way they’re doing things.


(1) all the sadder that the best line is Reacher grating out “I’m going to break your arms, your legs and your neck. What you hear in my voice is excitement.” to his gloating nemesis asking “Is that fear I hear?"

Friday, 21 October 2016

Ben H Winters: Underground Airlines

Did this start with the title and then Winters just had to do something with it? It’s such a great title.

It’s also a great high concept hook. Winters is good at this. The Last Policeman trilogy had a great hook; the world is ending, let’s look at it through the eyes of one guy trying to live a normal life as everything falls apart. Underground Airlines has another killer hook; what would the modern world be like if the USA still had slave states?

Spookily normal. Winters hints at the economic isolation of the USA, and the ways in which the bigger world would be different, but he keeps his focus squarely on his narrator and the day to day reality of hunting down escaped slaves. Victor’s USA is not all that different from our own; mobile phones, the internet, a hollowed out industrial economy. And four states with three million slaves, not to mention a Republic of Texas which either is or isn’t independent depending on whose propaganda you read. The Texan War fills the same space in this USA that the Vietnam war filled in the real world; a meat grinder which deflected the government just at the time when it might have started to deal with its internal contradictions.

As with the Last Policeman, a lot turns on the narrator. Henry Palace was a loveable doofus, charmingly out of his depth and gamely trying to do the right thing. Victor is a much darker character, clinging to his freedom by taking it off other people. When slaves escape to the free states, the feds hunt them down and hand them back, and Victor is one of the undercover agents who does the hunting. You need black agents to do this, and the only way the US Marshals can get those agents is by turning some of the escaped slaves on the rest. Victor is not one of the good guys. Victor is the guy who finds the good guys and betrays them.

It’s a tricky balancing act, both for the character and the writer. Victor’s smart enough to hate himself, and sneaky enough to pretend that he’s OK with what he has to do to get by; Winters is smart enough to get all of this into Victor’s voice as he tells us his story, an unreliable narrator who even lies to himself.

SF usually has three components; the gimmick, the plot which showcases the gimmick somehow, and the characters who make you care what happens. The gimmick is the easy bit, because that’s the bit you can write on a beermat; what if X were Y. The characters are usually the bit where SF crashes and burns. From what I’ve seen of Winters, he’s good at the gimmick and all the little touches which make the gimmick seem like it’s not a gimmick at all, and he’s good at the characters. It’s the plot which struggles. In the Last Policeman, the collapsing plots and pointless McGuffins were part of the character, really; Henry thought life had more meaning and complexity than it really did, and each book was about him finding out that it’s all just a mess. Underground Airlines is much darker and grittier, and so the lack of a plot which hangs together well is more of a problem for the book. The plot takes a long time to set up and then peters out far too abruptly before ending on what’s eithert an optimistic note or a sequel hook depending on whether we get another book.

I’d kind of like another book. Victor’s good company for all his flaws, and Winters kept the tension rising in the late going so that I could hardly bear to read the next chapter in case something terrible happened. And there’s a lot of stuff unpacked quickly in the closing pages which I would like to see fleshed out in another book. 

The thing which I’m still not sure about is how much of the idea is a what-if about how you could make slavery work in a modern world, and how much of it is a coded criticism of what we have instead with Asian sweatshops churning out cheap goods in horrible conditions that we all try hard not to think about.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

War on Everyone; don't let the McDonaghs out without Brendan Gleeson

Let’s tally this up. 

Martin McDonagh; In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths

John Michael McDonagh; The Guard, Calvary, War on Everyone

In Bruges and The Guard are both pretty good, and I can make an argument for Calvary. Seven Psychopaths and War on Everyone are pretty terrible; sprawling messes which keep winking out at the camera while wasting decent casts and going nowhere.

And it’s tempting to say that the problem is that they’re set in America and the McDonaghs only think they understand America. I think the problem is more personal. The problem is that there’s no Brendan Gleeson. And it’s not that I miss his ability to take the McDonaghs’ writing and make it sound like something which occurred to him in the moment. It’s that I think Brendan Gleeson is the only person who can pick up a McDonagh script and bitch-slap either brother across the face with it, bellowing “Do yis not get it? Yis can’t just type this crap and pray that I’m going to make it sing. Go away back to the pub and find another beermat. This is shite, and I’m not going to try to make it work."

Absent their profane muse, there’s nothing to make the McDonaghs skulk back to their lairs and get the damn thing right. They seem to have just enough moxie - or be just cheap enough - to keep the producers off their backs, and they head out to the location and bash out whatever the hell they feel like, in the apparent hope that the actors will save it, or the editors, or at the last ditch the audience’s affectionate memory of the stuff they did get right. Or maybe they just don’t care. Maybe they really think this stuff is golden.

Guys, it’s really not. I could have gone to the latest Mel Gibson movie, which I figured would be reliably stupid. I could have gone to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Tim Burton Grotesques, except I’m tired of watching Eva Green waste her talent. I went to War on Everyone in the same way that I slow down when I’m passing a car crash; I know this is going to be not good, but I can’t help wanting to know what way it’s going to be not good.

Paul Reiser is in it. He’s playing cop thriller stock character number 374, the long suffering lieutenant reining in his loose cannons, and yet somehow McDonagh couldn’t figure out a way to drag in an Aliens reference. Would it have been SO hard to work in “It was a bad call…”? Apparently. 

Doing most of the heavy lifting; Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard [1] as Bob and Terry, hopefully the most corrupt and unpleasant cops in Albuquerque, because man, you’d hate to think there was anyone worse on the payroll. I have a feeling they seemed funny as hell at three in the morning, but here in Ireland we don’t open the cinemas at three in the morning. Even if we did, it may not be legal to get the audience into the pharmacological state that would make Bob and Terry fun to be with. These are not likeable arseholes, and let’s face it, it’s not that hard to find unlikeable arseholes just by going to work in normal Dublin traffic. You’ll make your quota by lunchtime; you don’t need to go to the cinema.

Mostly, War on Everyone feels like they shot the first draft and had no money for reshoots and rewrites. “Let’s go to Iceland!” was not greeted with “In the name of God, WHY?” but with “Well, I guess.”  I dunno. Maybe McDonagh had never been to Iceland, and fancied doing it with someone else’s money. It’s pricey to visit; you can see why you’d use someone else’s money. What I couldn’t see is how it made sense to bring the narrative to a screeching halt to make it happen.

The most frustrating thing is that there are plenty of good moments. Skarsgard perfectly sells “You should see the other guy. Totally unscathed.” It’s far too consciously witty to work, and somehow it does anyhow. When people can do that, it really kills me that they can’t keep it up.


[1] I am way too lazy to try to figure out how to do the diacritical mark over the second “a”. Don’t even.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Girl With All the Gifts; heartwarming zombie fun

A couple of years ago, I read The Girl With All The Gifts and predicted that it would make a great movie one of these days. When the trailer showed up, I had goosebumps; it seemed like they’d got the look and the tension just right, and they seemed to have absolutely nailed the casting of Melanie. Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine were just icing on the cake; Sennia Nanua was nothing like the way I’d pictured Melanie and exactly the way she had sounded in my head when I was reading her dialogue. She was perfect. The movie had to be a disappointment. The last time I’d seen a trailer that looked so good, it wound up being Suicide Squad.

The great news is that it all lives up to the trailer this time. Weirdly Glenn Close might be the weakest thing in it. Sennia Nanua is adorable. She is completely believable as a precocious kid who adores her teacher and wants to be with her all the time, and she’s equally credible as flesh-eating monster doing whatever it takes to keep her precious human friends safe. She’s good enough to get away with lines which would have been cheesy for anyone else, including the almost perfect response to Ms Justineau asking if she wants a cat. The camera shifts, from the cat painting Melanie is gazing at, to her bloodsplattered face as she says matter-of-factly “Already had one.” That should not have worked.

I was surprised how true the film was to the book, but apparently Carey was working on the script at the same time that he was working on the book. The only significant change was to get rid of a subplot involving feral human survivors, which would have driven up the shooting price and not really added anything to the real plot of the movie; you could make a pretty good argument that the movie’s an improvement on the book, cleaner and more focused. The production costs were extraordinarily low by feature film standards, and if you know anything at all about film-making, there’s a lot to enjoy in such simple things as the way that scenes are staged and mounted to get the most out of limited budgets. When the camera goes wide to show the whole ruined post-apocalyptic world, the CGI shows its price a bit, but most of the time the camera is staying where it counts, with the tiny five person main cast.

When I reviewed the book, I talked about how grown up woman actors would fight to the death for the parts of Justineau and Dr Caldwell. What I underestimated was just how little it would matter who won that fight compared to how much it would matter who played Melanie. Melanie was a great character in the book, but it was always a long shot whether you could get that on the screen. Sennia Nanua does it all. She is adorable. For the movie to work, the audience has to be rooting for Melanie all the way, and with Sennia Nanua, any audience will be. I hoped it when I saw the trailer and heard her voiceover, which almost made me choke up with emotion. I believed it once I saw the whole performance. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming life-affirming zombie movie which ends with the whole human race being wiped out. To make that work took a kind of genius. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Connie Willis; Crosstalk

This is a book you read for the pleasure of the journey, because the destination, even the itinerary, has been telegraphed in the first thirty pages. Literally nothing goes to waste; every single character is there for a reason. Pay attention; passing references which seem to be just part of the mile a minute dialogue are as often as not the introductions of key characters who are going to show up at any minute. And yet, there are no real surprises. The suspense resides mostly in wondering just how long it’s going to take before the characters finally catch on to what the reader knows.

To some extent this is pure Connie Willis. Willis has spent most of her writing career writing about misunderstanding. Nearly every book has turned on misunderstanding and error, and so of course she’s written a romance novel. All romance novels are about misunderstanding, as the heroine completely fails to recognise the man of her dreams despite the reader seeing it a mile off. The extraordinary thing about the book will elude anyone reading Willis for the first time; the plot, the surprises, the resolution are all as utterly obvious as the final outcome of the Mills and Boon romances which Willis is echoing.

With anyone else, I’d think it was the writer getting lazy, but Willis isn’t lazy. She’s getting longwinded as she goes along, but she writes well enough to make that an acceptable vice. It’s almost as though she’s saying to her regular readers; here’s one with no surprises. See how you like it.

I liked it fine; you can’t spend time in Willis’ company without enjoying yourself. Her books are full of people talking over each other in different voices, as if she’s somehow taking dictation on the set of a series 1930s screwball comedies now lost to us, and if you can’t just sink into the fun of the language then there’s something dead in you. But it’s not a good Willis book. In Bellwether she did most of the workplace chaos and comedy in a fraction of the space and with a much better pay off. And if you want drama and romance, you need only look at Lincoln’s Dreams, her astonishing second novel. For pure drama, there are very few SF books by anyone which surpass Doomsday Book. If that’s just too intense, To Say Nothing of the Dog is in some ways her masterpiece; the stakes aren’t high, but the complexity of the plotting and the depth of literary reference and sheer cleverness is extraordinary. 

In other words, if you already like Connie Willis, this is going to seem a slip, and if you don’t already like Willis, this isn’t the place to start.

In other news, if you’re Irish, there’s a lot of little things which are just going to feel like chewing tinfoil, starting with the idea that anyone christened Bridget would ever be called Briddey. On the other hand, this is Irish America, which has always felt like a terrible parody of Ireland anyhow. Maybe it’s completely true to that.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Magnificent Seven: why wasn't the wagon Plan A?

I think I was about four minutes into The Magnificent Seven before I started wondering if we’d in fact perfected the Western decades ago and there was no need to go there any more. Let alone with a remake of a remake. Nothing in the next 129 minutes really changed my mind about that. It had been a toss up between that and Tim Burton’s latest, and I kind of wish I’d taken the big risk of it being a complete mess instead of figuring that Denzel would cancel out the Antoine Fuqua of it all. (Fair warning; one of those days, I’m going to find myself needing to describe a movie as a complete Fuqua-up).

The biggest misstep is Chris Pratt, who already was in a much better remake of The Magnificent Seven and just doesn’t quite work in this remake. Mostly because the character needs to be kind of mean, and Pratt can’t do mean. He can do funny, even snarky, but Chris Pratt’s never gonna be the guy who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Everyone just plugs along, even if Ethan Hawke seems to be there because he ran out of excuses to meet up again after Training Day.

It’s anyone’s guess whether this is supposed to be a banker for Denzel’s looming pension years; they’ve cheapened the sequel by killing everyone you ever heard of, leaving Denzel and two guys I’d never seen before to ride off into the sunset. So maybe there’ll be a whole run of these, just like there was the first time. Or maybe everyone will go meh, like I did, and Denzel will do something else to stave off the indignity of living on his existing savings.

Meanwhile, no-one in the movie needs a pension plan. It’s been a while since I saw a western with a body count like this one. Denzel and Co clear their throats by killing the average body count of most Liam Neeson movies, and then hunker down for some serious killing in the climax. Peter Sarsgaard’s creepy plutocrat sends hundreds of mooks to stomp them flat, and they get cut down in droves. So do the townsfolk. So do the Seven, who are down to Three by the time the dust settles. This is a small town of sharecroppers being hounded out by a mining magnate. If you correct for scale, The Seven are about as good for the town as the Avengers are for Manhattan, Segovia or - well, anywhere the Avengers go problem solving.

However, it’s the villainy I find most troubling. The Seven are seeing off the forces of corporate greed, in the shape of human cartoon Bartholomew Bogue. If you ever want to see a genuinely scary, amoral capitalist scumbag with a mining jones, I commend to you the third season of Deadwood, where George Hearst is depicted as the kind of robber baron who would burn down an orphanage to light his cigar and yet still pass for human among his peers. Bogue is written as the kind of twitchy sociopath whose criminal career would end about six weeks into his first hiring spree as his goons collectively realised that their best prospects for short term survival would turn on making their employer’s survival a very short term thing. Yup, he’s another one of those idjits that shoot the help.

Or send two hundred of the help into a defenceless town to butcher everyone before belatedly remembering that he’s brought a Gatling gun. Why wasn’t the Gatling gun Plan A? Nah. Send in the two hundred guys, and when you’re down to about a dozen and the assault has gone to hell in a handbasket, then turn to the sergeant and tell him to bring up the wagon. Of course, Bogue is nothing if not consistent; once Denzel’s Chisum finally gets the drop on him, Chisum has pretty much choked him to death before Bogue remembers he’s got a hideout gun in his boot. Slowly he inches it out, and then gets plugged at the last minute by someone else in the grand old style. Bogue is pure Hollywood idiot. In the real world, people would be saying “Remember that asshole Bogue? Why did he ever think he would ever amount to anything?” Unless he borrowed a ton of money from his Dad and another ton after he lost the first ton, I suppose. But still. If the Gatling gun isn’t plan A, you don’t deserve a Gatling gun.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Sausage Party: this is what drugs do, kids

I’ve often complained that a movie script seems to have been written on beer mat. Sausage Party shows every sign of having been written on the discarded fast food wrappers after someone got a fit of the munchies. What’s amazing is how many good moments they fit in along the way.

About half way through the movie, a druggie takes a tonne of bath salts and starts to see all the food in his apartment as living creatures. It’s as though the writers have popped their heads up and said “Key, kids, how do you think we came up with this movie?” It’s the kind of idea you can only have if you’re baked off your face. It’s also the kind of idea which it’s best not to overthink. The food is all sentient, and so are the douches, condoms and toilet paper, but not the cutlery. Also, the tequila is manifest as its packaging, but the hot dogs and buns just living in the packaging. There’s not a lot of internal consistency to the conceit is what I’m saying.

So what? The question is what do they do with it? A lot of really dirty jokes. A climax which is all about the power of physical pleasure, since it feels weird to try to figure out how food would have sex, or what the children would be like if the sex had any purpose beyond having fun with other foodstuffs. And a relentless critique of organised religion, combined with a slightly more subtle critique of the way that rationalists are really terrible at getting people to agree with them. I suspect that this all came from the writer’s hearts, and that it will change exactly nobody’s mind about anything.

But what really impressed me was the moments along the way. They have Meatloaf. Singing as a meatloaf. It shouldn’t be as hilarious as it is. They’ve got a piece of chewing gum as a bad-ass Stephen Hawking, which again oughtn’t to be hilarious. And they’ve got a really breathtaking scene in the first act where all hell breaks loose in the produce aisle, and for a few brief moments the movie perfectly echoes an epic disaster movie. A bag of flour explodes, covering everything in clouds of white dust; bottles shatter and send fragments flying through bystanders; it’s everything you’ve ever seen in a Michael Bay movie, and somehow it’s parodying it and still making you care about what’s happening to the characters on screen. And that cloud of dust is so close to my images of 911 that I can’t imagine that I’m the only person who saw it, and somehow even that works; they’re borrowing a disaster in a way which despite everything doesn’t seem disrespectful. Well, at least not by the standards of everything else they get up to.

And it all ends on an insane sequel hook, as Gum and Tequila punch right through the fourth wall and explain to the surviving foodstuffs that none of this makes any sense because they’re not even real food; they’re cartoons. Whereupon they set off through an interdimensional portal to beat sense into the insane gods who’ve been pulling their cartoon puppet strings. Fittingly for foodstuffs, they go through a portal made out of a toilet seat.

I can’t think of a single person who I’d recommend any of this to, but I’m glad I saw it.

The Infiltrator: peak Cranston has been reached

There’s a lot about Breaking Bad which is astonishing, but in the early going, one of the most surprising things about it was that Bryan Cranston was such a talented dramatic actor. Most of us had known him as an overwhelmed dad in Malcolm in the Middle, and now here he was as an anti-hero, responding to being overwhelmed in ways which were just not funny at all.

Which moved Cranston into the world of being able to open movies all on his own instead of being just another part of the backdrop of talented character actors propping up the star. And that, my child, is how we got Bryan Cranston producing and starring in The Infiltrator.

How did that work out? Well, the first thing to say is that it’s pretty hard to maintain suspense in a movie based on the autobiography of the main character. And in a movie where the whole point is the white knuckle tension of whether the infiltrator is going to get himself schwacked by the bad guys, you’ve got one foot nailed to the floor when the audience knows that the infiltrator lasted long enough to write a memoir.

The more interesting movie, in that circumstance, is to show the emotional conflict the infiltrator feels when he’s getting to know people who he’s going to screw over at the end of the engagement. The back end of the movie feels like the team realised that was the whole point, but too late to land it properly. A lot of time has gone into the setup, and into trying to get us to like Robert Mazur as a person, and there hasn’t been enough time to get us to like the people he’s setting up for a fall. Although, looking at most of them, enough time may not exist. They’re pretty horrible people. If a piano fell on them, your thoughts would be on whether the piano could be repaired.

But in the end, it’s a Brian Cranston movie. The supporting cast is good , but it’s a star vehicle for an unlikely star. Walter White was a bad guy, and Robert Mazur was kind of a good guy, so the question in my mind was how Cranston would show us a good guy.

Weirdly, his good guy was very like his bad guy; a driven, smart guy who lets everyone around him down while trying to make a success of his involvement in the drug trade. Somehow, what was convincing and gripping in an anti-hero wound up much less compelling in a hero, if only because the real life Robert Mazur must have been a much more charming and plausible man than Cranston’s nervy interpretation. It’s not a terrible movie, but in a world where Narcos has given us a much deeper view of the moral insanity of the war on Pablo Escobar, and Breaking Bad has shown us what Bryan Cranston can do in building a character, it would have been much better to take it to TV and give it the room to work.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Don't Breathe; what are they going to call the sequel?

Don’t Breathe ends on a sequel hook so blatant that I immediately started trying to figure out the title; Don’t Breathe Again? Don’t Breathe Either? I ran out of ideas. I’d been kind of hoping that Don’t Breathe would be this year’s The Guest, but I hadn’t expected that same “No-one could have survived that, oh wait, he totally did.” ending. 

Thing is, the movie earned the ending. It shouldn’t have worked, and in the early going I wasn’t even sure if it was going to work, but it built up the tension for just long enough before turning into an absolute rocket. How many different ways can you pit a blind guy against three dumb teenage burglars before you’ve run out of scares? A lot more than I’d expected, especially when you throw in the blind guy’s dog.

The slow buildup pays off, because by the time things get tricky, we’re starting to care about the characters; sure, they’re not nice people, but they’ve got messy lives and it’s not like they deserve to die horribly for the odd break-in, even if robbing a blind guy of his life savings is not anyone’s idea of a decent thing to do. I mean, it’s not like Kevin actually KILLED the Wet Bandits. So when the going gets tough, it feels like serious business; as John commented later, it was that rare movie where bad things were happening and the audience wasn’t laughing, not even nervously. It was way too tense for that. Though I have to admit that when Chekhov’s hound bounded into a crawlspace after the final girl, making a bad situation almost ridiculously worse, I did let out a nervous chuckle.

What’s just as impressive as the tension is the economy of effort. The cast is tiny, with only four real speaking parts and a quick bounce into Rocky’s horrible home life to show us just why she wants to rob a blind guy and start a new life with her kid sister. Although it’s set in Detroit, all the interiors were done in a studio in Hungary, which can now consider using “Budapest, just like Detroit” as a slogan to discourage tourism. All in all, it might have made back the budget in the first week, so the second week could finance the sequel if they go for it.

What’s almost depressing is that this isn’t a great movie - it’s not one I’d want to see again, if I’m honest - but at the same time it’s a much better movie in all ways than Mechanic: Resurrection or Suicide Squad to pick two movies that cost 4 times as much and 17 times as much to make and managed to disappoint my cheery expectations to about the same extent that Don’t Breathe beat my initial misgivings. The characters were interesting, the action worked, and it hit an almost perfect pace once the action really got going; the pressure doesn’t let up for a moment. And the stunts are simple without being dumb or repetitive; even while everyone’s stuck in one dingy house, the director kept finding new angles on how it could be a death trap.

With all that, the film it reminded me of most was 10 Cloverfield Lane, another claustrophobic nightmare with a plucky girl stuck in a house and way more out of her depth than she realises.

iPhone 7 Plus and Bokeh

Bokeh. A week ago, you could have had a flu epidemic in most cities and stood a good chance than not one person sneezing would have known what the hell bokeh was. But Apple have come down from the mountain, in and among getting mixed up about the meaning of the word “courage”, and promised a phone camera which will deliver “bokeh”.

I have two things to say about that, and I don’t know which fist to punch the wall with first. 

Soddit. “Bokeh” first. Bokeh is the cool word for the way that the background blurs when you focus on a nearby subject with a long lens that’s been banged out to the maximum aperture. It used to be an inescapable nuisance of photography. The iron laws of optics mean that the closer you are to a subject, the less of it will be in focus. The bigger the negative, the worse the problem gets. Also, the more the lens magnifies the image, the worse the problem gets. It’s yet another of the annoying ways that cameras are just crap at a job which eyes do better.

Seriously, look up from the computer screen. Depending on your age, either everything was in focus immediately, or it was all in focus within a second or so. A camera can’t do that. Largely because a camera doesn’t have a brain behind it sorting everything out for you so that everything looks sharp and in focus at all times - in reality, about four per cent of what you’re seeing is a live feed of sharp imagery and the rest is your brain remembering what it looked like from a few seconds ago.

When there’s nothing you can do about a problem, you just have to make it into an opportunity, and so along comes bokeh. If the camera can’t keep everything in focus the same way an eye appears to, use the selective focus as a way to highlight the important part of the picture and blur out what doesn’t matter. The most common approach is in portraits; thirty years ago, if you got close enough to a person with a serious camera that their face filled the frame, everything behind them would be out of focus. Lemons, lemon soufflĂ©.

And here we are in the wonderful 21st century. The average phone camera can get a crisp well exposed shot in the kind of light which would have needed professional lighting thirty years ago, and no-one even realises what an improvement that is. And the shot is pretty much just like the way the eye sees it, with everything in focus. Finally, cameras can take pictures which look like what we see and remember of the moment.

Somehow, this is terrible news. Because there’s no bokeh any more. The iron laws of optics again. Phone cameras use wide angle lenses and a negative the size of a match-head. Everything is in focus because it can’t not be. The wider the lens angle and the smaller the negative, the more of the picture is in focus. Serious arty photographers are crying into their beer. Or carrying around eight pounds of kit so that they can choose which bit of the picture is in focus and properly exposed.

Apple heard all this crying, and stepped forward with a new kind of camera in their phone. Which will give everyone the chance to look arty. 

Yeah, it won’t. The new lens is a 56mm equivalent. Bokeh doesn’t start to get usefully apparent until you’re at 85mm and longer. And that’s on old school 35mm film. On a tiny cameraphone image sensor, there’s going to be no bokeh effect of any kind. Apple have pretty much conceded this - their bokeh effect will not be available at first until they can improve the software. And at that point, it’s not a photographic breakthrough; it’s a goddam instagram filter. And we already had those. 

What Apple is offering you is a chance to mess up your pictures so that they will look different to the way that the world actually looks when you see it yourself. If they really wanted to shake things up, they’d be pushing us to take advantage of a camera which actually sees the world properly.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Hell or High Water; the hero is the lawyer

Apparently, Hell or High Water was shot entirely outside Texas, despite being set in West Texas. Also, there’s a bullet hole sized plot hole, in that Chris Pine gets shot in the late going and gets over it completely without any explanation. How a guy could get a bullet wound treated in the aftermath of a statewide crime spree is left as an exercise for the viewer’s imagination, and it bugged me, because everything else is meticulously put together, both from the point of view of plot and character.

Them’s all my grumbles, up front. Aside from that, it’s a good solid piece of grown up film making and one of the most satisfying things I’ve seen all year. It even plays to my prejudices by making Chris Pine turn out to be kind of a manipulative jerk as soon as he shaves off his stubble. For starters, it’s a solid counter to Money Monster; this is a movie about what the crash, and predatory banking, have done to ordinary Americans, and what a couple of ordinary Americans do to get their own back. It doesn’t go to plan, because when do these thingd ever go to plan, but the plan is the kind of smart that desperate men commit to, and it falls apart in much the way that desperate plans always do.

Above all, it’s grown up about what it’s doing. It hammers home the creeping poverty and bankruptcy of rural America with no pretence at subtlety; every sweeping landscape shot is topped or tailed by a roadside poster for payday loans or another store closure in a failing backwater town. The Howard brothers are set up from the get go as somewhat decent guys doing bad things in a good cause, and the banks are the unabashed villain of the piece. But just when you’ve got all comfortable with that, there’s one final confrontation between Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges where Bridges spells out just why Chris Pine is not the good guy, and never can be, not when he’s the brains behind a plan which left four men dead. No better man to hammer the point languidly home; for all that Bridges is a natural comedian, he gets his best results when that slow drawl is holding your soul up to the light and asking why none of the light is coming through.

Along the way there’s a solid mix of winning performances from the Howard brothers as desperate knucklehead bankrobbers with a better plan than meets the eye, and from Bridges and his partner as a pair of Texas Rangers trying to out-think them. Bridges and Gil Birmingham ought to be a running gag, with Bridges relentlessly bullying his partner with racist insults and mockery of the way that he always dresses just like him. And Bridges ought to be a punchline as a wheezing racist just trying to put off his retirement as long as he can by spinning out one last investigation. But somehow the pair seem like a working partnership, with a real affection despite the constant bickering. With a different budget, this could have been a whole TV show; Marcus and Alberto; he’s too old for this stuff and he resents the white man taking his land; together they fight crime. Or wait for it to happen while they eat T-bones, anyhow. I could have watched it all day.

And in what’s probably a first, the only real hero of the piece is a sleazy small town lawyer who’s taken pity on the Howard family and dots all the is and crosses the ts to make sure that the whole plot will hold up no matter what happens to the Howard brothers themselves. He gets one tiny scene, but he seems like the only person who got out of bed that day wanting to make the world a better place. That’s an original view of the profession.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Mechanic - Resurrection: Again, stick with the trailer

Of all the many things I thought about The Mechanic, I never thought anyone would bother with a sequel. It took them five years to collect enough spare change down the back of various sofas, but they finally had enough to make a cheap thriller with passable stunts and a no name cast. Then they spent the money on Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Michelle Yeoh and Tommy Lee Jones, and there was nothing left for a script, stunts, or even CGI. The first movie was an unwanted remake of a 1970s Charles Bronson movie; huge swathes of this one look like an unwanted extra episode of a 1970s TV show (especially anything set on the villain’s “yacht”). Location is established with a creaky mixture of stock footage and green screening in the backdrops behind the backlot in much the way that Alias did so much better more than a decade ago.

What’s kind of nuts is that the expensive talent have all done good work in action movies before. OK, Statham doesn’t even know what the words “quality control” mean, but he’s been doing this long enough that the sheer shakiness of it must have been obvious. Michelle Yeoh is both a great actress and a brilliant physical performer, and about as much exercise as she gets here is holding a pair of binoculars - in fairness, they may not have been able to afford to get her to do much more. Jessica Alba used to be an unexpectedly charismatic presence in the middle of weird Jim Cameron TV misfire Dark Angel, not least because you could believe her kicking her way through anything bothersome, so it’s pretty miserable watching her as designated chick with a fixed ratio of one punch for every ten the Stath gets. And then there’s Tommy Lee Jones, classing up the whole proceedings for the roughly ten minutes of screen time he gets. On the one hand, he delivers even cheesy dialogue as though he’d just thought of it. On the other hand, he almost gets away with a soul patch and two ear rings. And on the third, most important hand, he is such a skilled actor that at no point does his face ever give away what he must have been thinking “I did The Fugitive twice and Under Siege the only time it was good, and now I’m in %^&^$ing Bulgaria?"

Anyhow, it’s 98 minutes long, and it’s got about 40 minutes worth of movie in it. There are three or four big set pieces, strung together with a plot which seems to have been workshopped in a noisy pub after closing time from shaky memories of 2011’s The Killer Elite (also starring the Stath). The Stath has to kill three people, and the killings all have to look like accidents. If he doesn’t, Jessica Alba will be killed. The only elegant kill - and if you’re watching a hit-man movie, you’re there for the elegant kills - is pretty much showcased in the trailer. The other action scenes are messy and borderline half hearted; the only thing which comes close to vintage Stath is a punchup all over a cafe in Rio which climaxes with a jump off a cable car. Getting that to look less than ridiculous seems to have eaten up way too much of the money, with nothing left over to make believable explosions, or even to pay a guy to get the timings to make sense. The Stath keeps getting given impossible deadlines to kill his next victim. Every time he gets a deadline, he’s stuck in the middle of the ocean, miles from the nearest airport. By the time he even gets to where he has to do the kill … but instead we get a montage of skulking and preparation which would have taken days ….

Well, it was a weak week for movies in Dublin, and my expectations weren’t high. But this would have been disappointing as straight to video. How could they get a cast like that into a mess like that? As I peered at the credits to see if they actually managed to shoot A roll anywhere but Bulgaria (yes, Thailand), it came to me. The Stath had been given a mission. He had to get Michelle Yeoh, Jessica Alba and Tommy Lee Jones to appear in a movie so terrible no-one would believe that they were in it. And it had to look like an accident. Man, it really did.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Suicide Squad; just cherish the trailer

When I saw Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in the trailers for Suicide Squad, it was love at first sight. She seemed to be effortlessly nailing cheery murderousness. Here’s the moment that won me over; “Just kidding. That’s not what they really said.” Between that and her adorable pout when Rick Flagg ignored her warning that she was known to be quite vexing, I was looking forward to all-Harley, all the time.

The good news is that there will be a movie which will be all Harley, all the time, but this is not it. And with hindsight, I should have known this going in. Suicide Squad was directed by David Ayer. I’d been looking forward to another sarcastic bash-fest like Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy, but this was brought to us by the guy who made Fury and Sabotage. Under the supervision of Zach Snyder. Yeah, I was being way too optimistic.

Harley is pretty much as advertised, and she fits into the movie like Ronald McDonald at Nelson Mandela’s state funeral. This is a criticism of the movie, not Margot Robbie. I wanted to see a whole film tuned to her performance. That’s what the trailer had left me expecting. That’s not, of course, what Ayer and Snyder had in mind. 

So it’s a big grim superhero mission movie as the ill-assorted anti-heroes are sent in to do something about a monster which will destroy the world if they don’t stop it. This is what comes of killing Superman, dudes. I know it’s annoying that he can just solve any problem that comes up, but killing him isn’t the answer; the answer is to come up with problems where Superman doesn’t know which side to help, or just plain thinks are beneath his dignity. You can send your low rent heroes off to deal with that stuff. 

So, if you’ve seen any superhero movie, ever (and if you haven’t, please tell me how you managed it, because I want to live your life), you will find the plot of Suicide Squad and its climax tiresomely familiar. Ill-assorted team trying to pull together to tackle bad guy? Yup. Happening in a city being flattened by supernatural powers? Yup. All seems lost until someone sacrifices himself? Exactly.

Meanwhile there’s a perfectly serviceable origin story playing in the background for Harley Quinn, featuring as little Joker as they could get away with. Apparently there’s a whole lot more Jared Leto Joker on a cutting room floor somewhere, but a) Jared Leto seems to have spent the production getting on everyone’s nerves and b) Ayer was trying to make a horrible movie and the Joker might actually have been fun. To give you an idea of how little real effort went into getting this movie right, the Suicide Squad are all carefully introduced, and then have bombs put in their necks to keep them in line. And then, just as they get on the plane, a whole new squadmate is thrown on after them, without the slightest effort to give him a back story. They might as well have put a red shirt on him. Five minutes later, he’s had his head blown off so that we all know the bombs are real.

Now, when Batman v Superman tanked at the box office and appalled the critics, they released a new cut on DVD with 27 extra minutes of footage. So it’s always possible that we might get an enhanced Suicide Squad with more material. But it will be more David Ayer material, which is to say more doom and gloom and bleakness. So for maximum enjoyment, just watch the trailers, and pretend that one day they’re going to make THAT movie. It will be great. As long as David Ayer isn’t let anywhere near it.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Jason Bourne; because Bourne Again would have drawn the wrong audience

There have been all kinds of takedowns on the internet of the laughable techno-babble on Jason Bourne. For me, the key moment is when the CIA nefariously shuts down the power to a whole city block to stop hackers in Iceland from breaking through the CIA’s firewall. A) it would have been quicker and easier to pull the plug on something in the CIA's own building [1], and B) edgy next-gen hackers in their own hackerspace in an abandoned factory are completely reliant on mains power? Schyeah, right. No way they’d be using a UPS and a backup generator.

That happens about ten minutes in, and acts as a wonderful statement of intent from the middle-aged lefties making the movie; technology is bad, and wicked, and evil, and wrong because anything we can’t understand must be bad and wicked and evil and wrong. Also, you can’t trust The Man, though in fairness I’ve yet to see a Hollywood movie which endorses trusting The Man.

In other news, Jason Bourne is alive and well and kicking seven bells out of everything for no readily apparent reason. Seriously, that’s his retirement plan; going around the Balkans beating people up in bare-knuckle boxing matches. We never see him getting paid for this, or eating his kills, so it’s not at all clear how he’s keeping body and soul together. It’s even less clear how Julia Stiles tracks him down when no-one else could find him, but Jason Bourne is a movie which is hoping to move fast enough that you won’t notice it’s not making any sense. There are moments when it almost pulls it off; Bourne’s escape and evasion through Athens is quick enough that its essential idiocy wasn’t readily apparent. And also, I was looking at the scenery and wishing that the camera would stop shaking long enough to see if I recognised anything. Also also, I was wondering whether they found a riot in progress when they showed up with the cameras and just ran with it, or actually planned the riot, which would have made for a fascinating meeting with the Greek police force. All a red herring; they shot the Athens bits in Tenerife. Finding that out made me feel a bit better about not recognising anything.

Bourne spends most of the movie being chased by Vincent Cassel, playing a character called the Asshat. I think they may have meant something else, but since he shoots people on a whim and we first meet him casually murdering a guy who he’s been torturing in a bathtub for days, I’m going to go with the way I heard it. The Asshat is well peeved with Bourne, whose whistleblowing led to him getting captured and almost killed, but really the only bad part of that is the “almost”. He also caps Julia Stiles’ character, continuing the Bourne series’ cheery tradition of blowing the head off any woman dumb enough to fixate of Jason Bourne for any length of time.

I was starting to wonder if - in turn - Alicia Vikander’s computer hacker-in-chief was the latest victim of Bourne’s inexplicable charm, but was immensely cheered up to see that she’d been playing him like a banjo as part of a truly stinky piece of office politics designed to displace Tommy Lee Jones. She may have been doing this on purely aesthetic grounds, since Jones showed up for work as if he was halfway through this scene in a better movie - clearly the strain of playing a villain was simply too much for his skin to stay on his cheeks any more.

And by no means least, don’t buy a Dodge Charger. Bourne and the Asshat have a great big stupid car chase at the end in which the Asshat is driving some kind of armoured truck and Bourne has the Charger. I lost count of the collisions, but in the end the Charger goes over the top of the truck and gets wedged in the entrance of a casino in Vegas [2] and the airbags still don’t deploy. Clearly, not a safe vehicle.

Matt Damon said he would only do another Bourne movie if Paul Greengrass directed it. What he probably should have said was that he would only do another Bourne movie if it had a decent script.

[1] Seriously, if an Garda Siochana can figure that out as a fix, it’s beyond ridiculous that it wouldn’t occur to the CIA.

[2] Vegas was played by Vegas, because you can destroy 170 cars in Vegas late at night and no-one will feel the need to join in.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Wayward Pines Season 2: This is where we came out

The three canonical Wayward Pines books end in a tremendously clear cut way. There’s any amount of peripheral apocrypha, just as there is is with the Wool sequence, but the core work is in and out with brisk efficiency. Then we got the TV adaptation, which choked on the idea of wrapping up the product so definitively, and instead ended on a sequel hook so that they could go on milking the property for a few years.

The upside of this was that Wayward Pines’ second season had the prospect of surprise. The books had ended with everyone taking a two thousand year jump into the future, having answered pretty much all the questions that the books had asked. If you’d read the books, the main interest for the TV show was how faithful the adaptation had been, and how well the TV show handled the withholding and misdirection which Blake Crouch had built into the books. It’s hard to withold some things in TV; the TV adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, for example, blows a key twist because it’s pretty much impossible to show a girl throwing herself at an oblivious narrator without the audience seeing it even if the narrator doesn’t. Other withholding is much easier; acting can’t tell you what someone is thinking, no matter what actors might hope to the contrary.

But having killed a big chunk of the headline cast and thrown out a sequel hook of a town where the next generation had set up a police state, the scriptwriters had set up a season where I didn’t know what to expect. Other than my usual expectation of unexpected second seasons, which is that everyone will mark time for fear of running out of plot and having to find honest work somewhere else. Shallow couch-potato that I am, I don’t much care if there’s a plot as long as the characters entertain me from moment to moment. So my uneasy expectation of Waward Pines II was that there would be a Resistance vibe rolling for week after week as baby fascists persecuted cynical older people, aka “How is this different from my actual life?"

Instead things went to hell in a handbasket with impressive speed, as the monsters on the borders horded up something wicked and the humans ran out of food and everything else. There were all kinds of sub plots which looked like they were going to go somewhere, most notably “Oh, look, the monsters might not be the bad guys after all.” complete with mysterious leader spooking everyone out by getting captured just to get a better look at the opposition. And then it all just falls apart, until in the end the survivors pile back into the stasis pods in the hope that if they fast forward for two thousand years perhaps the monsters will have got over their grievances, or evolved, or died out or something.

Which is pretty much the canonical ending, just with ten extra TV hours of faffing about stuck onto it at the front to no very great purpose. We got to see a bit more about how Wayward Pines was designed and planned, and got a different handle on the Abbies, and well, that was about it. Not many new questions, no real answers to any of them, and in the end we’re pretty much exactly where we would have been if the first season had been a completely faithful adaptation of the source text, and the chances of any of the questions from this season still being relevant in a third season are about as high as the chances of there even being a third season.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ghostbusters; More Holtzman, please

It doesn’t bother me at all that they’ve remade Ghostbusters with women. Women are in my top two favourite genders. I can’t think of anything women don’t improve. My problem is that on the one hand, they didn’t have faith in their new cast, and on the other hand they forgot what made the original movie really pop. It wasn’t the special effects; it was the swagger. The original, male, ghostbusters defied authority. They weren’t afraid of no ghosts. They also weren’t afraid of The Man.

The new ghostbusters? Not so much with fronting up The Man. Which is a pity, since every single actress there is more than equal to getting right up in The Man’s grill. I’d been looking forward to seeing Melissa McCarthy saying solemnly “Yes, this man has no dick.” Not just because it’s a great scene which could have withstood endless repetition, but because giving a woman that line would be even funnier.

From some points of view, the new version is an improvement on the first movie; it’s got a tighter, almost TV-episode plot, and this time the black Ghostbuster has some real weight as a character. These are useful improvements. And Chris Hemsworth’s idiot secretary is good fun, not least because it’s no longer practical to write a female character that transparently stupid.

But it’s a movie which struggles to get out from under its original, winking back at it all the time, and then dragging in more and more cameo roles from every surviving cast member of the original. I mean, I didn’t hate seeing Sigourney Weaver popping up over the credits, but if you want to make a movie, make that movie. Don’t keep reminding us that you’re making a copy of it.

The upside of it all is that it’s done well enough at the box office that a sequel’s more likely than not. And no-one really rates the “original” sequel. So it’s all to play for if they go for Ghostbusters 2. And if they do, they need to double down on this


That. Right there. Best thing in the movie, doing what she does best. Swagger.

Central Intelligence; Chekhov's inflatable gorilla

Central Intelligence is an anti-bullying PSA wrapped up in a bad spy thriller. And when I say “wrapped up” I want to you to imagine an elephant wrapped in a single serving cheese slice.

It’s also a movie in which Snowball gets funnied off the screen by Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, which isn’t surprising, but after Kevin Hart’s wonderful turn as Snowball, it was a disappointment to see him doing a generic stressed out middle class black guy straight out of the 80s movie they seem to have wedged their bullying movie into.

Other than that rather obvious point, it’s kind of an amiable mess. It reminded me a lot of Knight and Day, if you could somehow imagine Cameron Diaz being played by a hysterical Kevin Hart while the Rock channelled Tom Cruise. There’s a ditz in over his/her head and an amiable super spy who keeps coming up with ever more lunatic methods to get the ditz out of trouble and closer to the McGuffin. The spy movie end of things feels as though it’s been sitting in a desk drawer for years waiting for a green light; it’s the same old same old notion of a widget which the bad guys want to to buy and the good guys want to keep. The bullying movie is more interesting, but only because the Rock has had his standard brand super hero rewritten to be amiably bonkers. Given that he’s obsessed with movies from the eighties when his character is written to be a teenager in the 1990s, I now find myself tempted to carbon date the script as more than ten years old.

Anyhow, there are occasional jokes, the odd interesting stunt, and an inspired use of an inflatable gorilla which I worked out about ten seconds ahead of time, making me slightly more intelligent than the desired audience for a movie which was advertised with the tag line “You need a little Hart and a big Johnson”.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Secret Life of Pets; More Snowball!

The Secret Life of Pets had a fun trailer showing pets getting up to all sorts of things when their owners left, which seemed promising. Specifically, promising anarchy, which I am a fan of. The actual movie is, perhaps inevitably, another one of those things where a well-meaning idiot gets into trouble, undertakes an epic journey, learns some lessons and discovers the importance of friendship. I could blame Contour, I could blame kid friendly programming, or I could simply accept that by the time you’ve worn yourself out imagining cool things to animate, there might not be anything left in the tank for a cool story stringing it all together. And then I can sit there enjoying the lunacy, assuming that the lunacy has been delivered on schedule.

The Secret Life of Pets delivers an acceptable level of goofy stupidity, even if a week later I’m having trouble remembering any of the details. There’s a wander across Manhattan which is full of the kind of invention that wasn’t there for the plot. There’s lots of cat jokes. And most importantly, there’s Snowball, who provides about 110% of all the energy on offer in the movie. Once Snowball explodes onto the scene, plotting the overthrow of all humanity, I lost all interest in the domesticated heroes, and just wanted a whole movie devoted to Snowball wrecking things like some sort of demented cross between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Bugs Bunny on a bad hair day.

I could bend my own head into a pretzel wondering about how right-on it is to have Kevin Hart voicing a white rabbit who’s rebelling against the slavery of pets by humans, but while it was happening I was just enjoying the sheer audacity of it all. As the action builds to a climax, Snowball steals a bus and starts barrelling over the Brooklyn Bridge; the only nod to realism is that he can’t work the wheel AND the pedals, and if you stop to wonder how he stole the bus in the first place, there’s something dead inside you and we can never be friends, though I will happily engage you to manage my money because that’s the kind of soulless dedication to detail I like in a fiduciary. My actual friends will be nodding slightly to the Beastie Boys and hoping the bus ride goes on forever. It doesn’t, but until it stops, everything seems possible.

Snowball aside, it’s hard to buy into it; this is a movie where the side characters are more interesting than the main characters, because they all do one thing and do that well for just long enough to entertain us before bouncing off the screen. The main characters - well, it’s great that Gidget is an empowered female just driving things along, but if she has a conversation with a named female character which ISNT about her quest to get back her man, I missed it. At the time, that annoyed me less than the fact that Gidget was full of moxie and Max was at best an amiable moocher with a modicum of charm and not quite enough brains to notice that he was stupid. Gidget didn’t need to settle for that when she plainly could have had her pick of the pet world. 

But never mind that. Snowball. Who, like all criminal masterminds is eliminated at the end by irony, in this case getting suckered back into slavery by a little girl stroking him. So this time next year I damn well EXPECT a sequel about his rescue and riproaring rampage of revenge.