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.