Wednesday, 23 March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane; small, simple, gripping

I didn’t know if I was going to like 10 Cloverfield Lane, but I know enough about JJ Abrams to know that my best chance of liking it was to go and see it before anyone had a chance to tell me all about it. The Abrams schtick is that nothing is quite what it seems, which is all very well and good until the movie gets onto the internets. So, get there early and make the most of it; like fish, Abrams is not a thing which keeps well.

And it’s a good little movie. Considering that it’s got Cloverfield DNA, it’s a surprisingly good movie. Luckily, they ditched the gimmick from Cloverfield, and even more luckily they went and hired themselves a couple of actors and locked them in a box where they had nothing to distract them from acting. John Goodman is so loveable normally that Howard makes a great villain, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is perfectly convincing as a smart woman who never gives up trying to improvise her way out of impossible situations. 

The first of which is trying to figure out whether John Howard's an absolute monster, or just a horrible prick trying to do the right thing. Which leads into the second problem; there’s definitely some kind of monster round the place, but is it Howard, or is he right about there being a holocaust underway outside the bunker he’s locked Michelle into? Or is it both? And indeed, is this another take on Room and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt just pretending to be a Cloverfield movie so as to really wind you up for the punch line?

Well, all of that would be telling. 

What I can say, without fear of ruining very much, is that the midgame is absolutely nerve-wracking. Goodman just exudes menace; no matter whether there’s anything out there, or how evil he might really be, he’s got a bad side a mile wide, and with three people stuck in a bunker with nowhere to go, there’s no safe place for tantrums. Howard and Michelle and dumb handyman Emmet are as ill matched as three people can be, and the whole middle of the movie is dominated by the feeling that any of them could snap at any moment.

There is stuff that doesn’t hang together properly; Michelle starts off in the bunker with a leg brace for her knee, and is hopping around fine without effort a lot earlier than I ever was. Not that I grudge her the rapid recovery, but I spent most of the movie hoping she wouldn’t bang her knee into something painful. There’s other stuff which hangs together almost too well; there’s a Chekhovian economy of props that gets a bit excessive when a bottle of whiskey from the opening scene turns into a ludicrously effective molotov cocktail for the climax.

There’s a hint in the whole thing that Abrams has some kind of long con in his mind, where all kinds of stories might get told around the edges of the origin story, and I have to admit that as things wrap up, I was almost interested in seeing what else might come up. But the first movie’s kind of a mess, and you can’t keep locking a couple of good actors in a basement and hoping it works out.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife

Man, The Water Knife is tough going. Bacigalupi isn’t a feel-good writer at the best of times, but every time the viewpoint shifted to his doomed teenage Texan refugee Maria, I put the book down for a bit and did something else. Maria is having a grindingly horrible time, and it just keeps getting worse. And it’s not even as though I could go on-line and make a credit card donation to some charity which would intervene on my behalf to make it all better. This was a completely made-up piece of misery which would only happen if I made the effort to read about it. Well-written misery which echoed a kind of misery which is far too available right now, but still completely fictional, and so it felt way too much like punching myself in the face for no good reason.

The misery doesn’t ever let up, but about half way through the book Bacigalupi decides that he’s done enough background misery and kicks everyone into the plot. Which is something that always annoys me in books; you’ve got three or more viewpoint characters who have nothing to do with each other, but since they’re all in the same book, they’re going to move into alignment with each other somehow before it’s all over. Typically, when it does happen, it feels like artifice, like un-earned coincidence, like something dumb. How come these three characters all collide just when they need to? They’ve got nothing to do with each other, and there’s no good reason why they should all be in the same place at the same time.

The reason that this kind of thing feels stupid in books is that the story is told the wrong way. Whenever anything happens in real life, it’s always because people have collided with each other, and a lot of the time they knew nothing about each other and never expected it to happen. And right up to the moment of the collision, they were just getting on with their lives, all stars of their own little show without any thought for the bigger show someone else might be in. And if you start with that collision; start with the inciting event; the reader doesn’t even blink. This thing has happened to these people, I wonder what’s going to happen next. But if you keep the cast apart for half the book or more, then by the time they run into each other, it feels forced and artificial, as though these people with real lives have been rammed together in service of the plot.

Not that Bacigalupi cares hugely about plot. As I’ve commented before, he’s writing about the collapse of the world, and the way it hurts people, and the way that it hurts people right now. Plot is secondary to theme and characterisation, which is why an otherwise perfectly good writer will hang everything off a McGuffin so blatant that most episodes of TV would have had a sheepish grin on their faces while they explained that they would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for the …. If you haven’t figured out what’s going to turn out to be the Maltese Falcon/letters of transit/glowing briefcase about ten seconds after it’s put into play, you’re some kind of freak of nature who by chance has chosen The Water Knife as the first work of fiction you’ve ever read. 

Which is a shame. The Water Knife is set in a near future dystopia of the American south west, and I can’t help wondering how much better it would have been if Bacigalupi lived near Don Winslow and went out with him for a few beers to talk about plotting and how to make chaos into a real plot driver. Winslow makes the contemporary south west and borders into a terrifying character in its own right, to the point where I am anticipating The Cartel with a perfect measure of glee and dread that uses every shred of meaning in the word “anticipate”. Winslow could have put some plot manners on The Water Knife

London has Fallen; industrial strength idiocy

It’s early days, but I think I’ve seen the worst movie I’m going to see in 2016. If I see anything worse, it will have involved fraud, false advertising, and very possibly kidnapping and hostage taking; all perfectly valid plot angles for a movie, but not generally thought of as something you ought to be doing to get and keep an audience.

I can’t accuse the team behind London has Fallen of false advertising, because I’d seen Olympus has Fallen and I know enough not to expect sequels to improve on the original, no matter how low a baseline the original has set. In principle, a random group of barbary apes had at least a 50:50 chance of producing something better than Olympus has Fallen, but Hollywood isn’t run by anything remotely as useful as a random group of barbary apes.

So, new terrible director. A lot of the same cast. I wanted to say the same star, but Gerard Butler isn’t a star, exactly, more a sort of crudely animated glower that bobs up unaccountably in the middle of murder movies and romantic comedies. I tend to assume that the rest of the cast are retained by reminding them that Gerard Butler actively loves stabbing people, since it’s hard to think that Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett are really finding it that hard to pay their butlers. As always, I find myself praying that Butler is the best actor in the whole world, since the thought that he’s not acting his way through stabbing and bashing people is too unsettling to contemplate. The less said about what’s happened to poor Aaron Eckhardt the better. He deserves a real job, and here he is, once again the designated chick to Butler’s government-issue serial killer.

Once again, Butler and his date have to fight off hordes of terrorists determined to kill the US president and everyone else on screen. Roughly 90 % of the cast get killed, which gets super weird when the camera zooms out to the pick-up shots and no-one in London seems remotely worried about the fact that the city has had its landmarks “decimated”. This is what happens when you shoot as much of the movie as possible in Bulgaria and use shonky CGI for anything dramatic that’s supposed to be happening in the London you’ve put in the title. 

When the money’s so tight that you’re shooting in Bulgaria, there usually isn’t enough money for a script, and there’s never enough money for enough action to distract you from the lack of a script. And so it proves. There’s about a TV show’s worth of action squeezed into a movie’s worth of time, and it’s rationed out sparingly. I won’t swear that it takes half an hour before we even get to London, but it sure feels like it. When I was commenting on Olympus has Fallen’s big brother White House Down I noted approvingly that there is no time wasted getting into the action; within fifteen minutes things are kicking off all Roland Emmerich stylee and the pedal stays floored from there on out, for better or worse. That’s what happens when you’ve got money. When you don’t, you get the same cast that took the job last the time, blow the dust off a spec script that the writer’s lost interest in, and everyone gets on a plane to Bulgaria, god help them.

Spec script, you ask? Surely this is a high concept movie, sequelising a high concept idea. There’s only so far you can get with a beermat, son. Olympus has Fallen was basically Die Hard in the White House, and just like Die Hard, any sequel is a matter of grabbing the main characters and wedging them sideways into anything you can afford to buy off the shelf. At some level, any movie buff knows this is happening; but London has Fallen is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen. You can still see the wreckage of the original script, in which a treacherous MI6 agent makes a deal with terrorists to let them run riot in London for the day so that he can a) get the UK to take the threat of terror seriously and b) retire rich, and his streetwise colleague has to take him down. Gerard Butler literally stabs his way into the middle of the plot and then explodes his way back out of it before sloping off ten minutes before the end so that the actual main characters can resolve the story as it was written. Because, as he has already demonstrated, you can’t stab a confession out of someone, and the plot required a confession.

It’s been a while since I hate watched something in a cinema, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve outgrown the idea.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Hail Caesar: I don't think they ever made them like this

Hail Caesar is a kind of poem to things they don’t do any more, like making Roger Deakins shoot on 35 mm film and run his own cameras. If it works at all as a movie, it works as a reminder that once upon a time, Hollywood did things which were genuinely difficult to do, and just watching that happen counted as entertainment. So you have Scarlett Johansen in an Esther Williams pastiche, and Channing Tatum chanelling Gene Kelly, and some kid I never heard of channelling a whole bunch of cowboy actors I also never heard of, and a constant saturation in the simple, difficult physicality of making a Hollywood movie in the days of the studio system.

And each of these bits works for the moments in which it’s happening, but it’s a clip show, not a movie. It’s stunning to watch Esther Williams’ water ballets re-enacted and recall that sixty years ago you just had to do those things again and again until they were perfect instead of fixing it all with CGI and green screen. It’s just as much fun to watch Channing Tatum lead a musical number full of singing sailors and tap dancing; on the one hand, I didn’t know that Channing Tatum could tap dance, and on the other hand I’d forgotten how Hollywood used to do things which were both incredibly difficult and magnificently stupid, simply because these were things you could do on a soundstage, pointless or not.

Of course, they’re still doing that; watch any modern action movie and you can’t help realising that they figured out how to do a CGI stunt and then tried to figure out how to write a script which would somehow accommodate it. But somehow a stunt which just took hundreds of computer operators in a warehouse writing endless lines of code doesn’t have the same heft as a stunt which took dozens of skilled people working their hearts out in front of the cameras. I don’t know whether the Coen brothers were trying to make this point, because honestly I don’t have the energy to try to figure out how much subtext the Coens are throwing at things. They sure had fun making sure that no-one missed the parallel between the Marxist dialectic on the control of the means of production and the job title of Eddie Mannix’s Head of Physical Production, so it’s probably safe to guess that they meant everything I spotted and a whole bunch of people I was too dumb to spot.

Still, it’s always reasonable to ask whether a story works as a story. Hail Caesar doesn’t pass that test. If it’s the story of Eddie Mannix, middle-aged troubleshooter, the camera isn’t on him long enough and you never get the sense of him as the protagonist he should be. And it sure ain’t the story of anyone else; Oscar winning stars are drifting through the action at obtuse angles, fleetingly lighting up the screen before disappearing again. Weirdly, Jonah Hill has not just his name but his picture of the poster for a role that consists of a single scene and no more than ten lines of dialogue. Frances McDormand shows up just long enough to be almost strangled by Chekhov’s scarf. Ralph Fiennes steals everything but the cameras as swish “quality director” Laurence Laurentz, driven demented by his actor, but never past the point of exquisite politeness. It’s probably just me, but the best scene in the movie is a pitch meeting where Eddie tries to get a Catholic priest, a rabbi, a “Protestant reverend” and an Orthodox priest to agree that Hail Caesar is a respectful movie about the life of Christ. It’s the sort of scene which could have been a trainwreck, but instead has a touching respect for sincerely held faith; even the Catholic priest, the easiest of targets in this modern age, comes over as a decent man trying to articulate something worth holding on to.

And I haven’t said anything about Clooney, because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Clooney never really seems like he’s trying in movies, until there’s a quiet moment which makes you realise that he’s been drawing you in for an understated punchline, but I’ve rarely seen him so disconnected. It’s one of those performances whose subtlety isn’t apparent at first, because he alternates between a goodlooking idiot and an actor who can’t really act (his performance as “Autolycus” is pitch perfect for a guy too drunk and lazy even to question what the hell kind of name “Autolycus” is). Then right at the end he kicks it up a notch with a vision scene right out of the Richard Burton “Were you …. out there?” playbook, and suddenly that quiet intensity is fully in place - until he fluffs the last line and goes off to have another drink. 

Is it a must see? Not even a little bit. It’s a genial mess. But it’s stuffed full of little gems, so that if you were the kind of person - as I once was - who’d take a week off to see everything at a Film Festival, it would be something to treasure, filled as it is with reminders of crafts which were every bit as ridiculous as they were impressive. Nonsense was somehow better in those days.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Deadpool: The right kind of wrong

Deadpool almost managed to make me forgive it for being an origin story, and completely managed to make me forget that the last time I saw Ryan Reynolds was in this. I now retroactively hate the director and writer of that movie even more than I already did, since it turns out that Ryan Reynolds is effortlessly funny and they somehow managed to find a way to hide it.

Deadpool is either going to have you at hello or you’re going to hate it. The opening credits are simultaneously a slo-mo action scene and a sustained joke about superhero movie cliches using the credits to point out that it’s always the same characters, right down to the obligatory villain with a British accent. Reluctantly, I have to admit that it doesn’t always sustain that high; there’s a lot of flat bits where they’re trying to get on with the story or build up some character motivation, and they stop wise-cracking for what always feels like an age. Then the wise-cracking kicks in again and it’s all fine.

Between the sarcasm and the meta-fiction and the relentless over the top violence, I got to wondering whether it would have been better or worse to give the whole thing to Matthew Vaughn, but I suspect the reality is that the only limitation on proceedings was that Marvel wouldn’t throw much money at a foul-mouthed R-rated movie full of single entendres and horrible murder. Which was a good call; they’re making more money back off the modest gamble, per dollar spent, than they’re likely to make off X-Men Apocalypse; they’ve already taken in as much money as the last X-Men movie, all while diss-ing it every chance they got. There is, of course, the horrid risk that they’ll take the wrong lesson from this, and spend much more on the sequel, rather than cutting the budget for all their other movies and trying such novel approaches as acting, writing, and focus.

Putting to one side the fact that it’s duh, another origin story, the real success in Deadpool is that it’s a small human-scaled movie in which one guy is trying to save his own world, rather than the whole world. Which makes it better than the last small-scaled Marvel movie, even before they added dirty jokes and systematic attacks on the fourth wall. Deadpool  is so good at small scale that I’d have been perfectly happy watching a whole movie of Wade beating up minor nuisances for chump change and hitting on skanky women in terrible bars, which is pretty much Deadpool’s backstory. 

Bonus points for ragging on Marvel all the way through the movie, sniping at all the other movies and complaining about how they shorted them on the budget (the running gag of Deadpool always forgetting to bring his guns to gunfights is at least partly down to them not having the money to stage big gunfights). Super bonus points for a climactic battle which doesn’t level the city, but does partly trash a wrecked helicarrier being cut up for scrap; I just liked the idea that all this apocalyptic crap from the big budget movies just winds up getting in everyone else’s way for years afterwards.

In good news for the 33 people who liked this, Ed Skrein will be free for the sequel, what with getting shot in the head at the end of this movie. Also in the movie, in one of the subtlest CGI effects I’ve ever not noticed until afterwards, is Gina Carano somehow being a foot taller and a bunch chunkier than she is in real life; it’s a perfect demonstration of how an unflashy effect gets more work done.

And for once, it’s a Marvel movie with a post credits sting worth waiting for. On the one hand, it mocks the whole Marvel credits sting time waster, and on the other hand it perfectly echoes what was once almost the only credits sting in the world, the closing gag in Ferris Bueller. Always leave them laughing.