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.