Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunkirk; sponsored by drowning

Thanks to reviews of Dunkirk, I learned that Christopher Nolan has a phobia about drowning. Or at least that drowning features again and again in his movies. Also, I think he’s colour blind, and he hates digital, which leads to things like faking a drowning in an aeroplane by not faking it at all and practically drowning the actor for real. And also faking your crowd scenes on the beach in Dunkirk by using cardboard cutout for most of the soldiers. I was slightly surprised by that, since my assumption about Christopher Nolan’s approach to casting is that he just asks everyone he knows and they show up out of curiosity about what he’s up to now. Collateral to that was the notion that if he wanted extras, all he needed to do was mention it to the internet. But cardboard cutouts is the way that he went. In a weirdly retro way, it’s practically cool.

Anyway, if you like drowning, you’ll love Dunkirk. There’s just loads of drowning. People drowning in ditched Spitfires, people drowning in beached trawlers, people drowning in sunken warships.

As a movie that isn’t about drowning, I’m not so sure. It’s great looking, and it’s focused on one simple thing, and the performances are low key and convincing. Well, maybe not Kenneth Branagh, who spends the whole movie explaining what’s going on to people who already know damn well what’s going on. You could argue that this isn’t realistic, except that for a lot of jobs it’s the whole damn job in practice, but even if you think it’s realistic, it’s kind of a waste of time mixed with an insult to the audience’s intelligence. And the rest of the movie is about using every moment effectively, so the Branagh stuff sort of stands out a little.

The guy with the biggest investment in using time effectively is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, who has a whole hour’s worth of fuel and an apparently infinite supply of bullets. He spends most of the movie worrying about how much fuel he’s got left, before finally running out of fuel and having to glide into captivity at the hands of literally the only Germans we ever see in the whole thing. But at no point does he lose any sleep over ammunition, even though he’s got about 18 seconds worth of it. I wasn’t timing it the way I ought to have been, and maybe he only does fire eighteen seconds worth of machine guns, but it seems uncharacteristic that he doesn’t worry at all about running out of ammunition. Somehow, that bugged me, as did the way he put on his goggles once both the other Spitfires had ditched and we didn’t need to see the faces to know which pilot was which.

Still, these are quibbles. It’s a solid piece of work which has moments of real greatness, and naturally Nolan manages to pull off the excessivel tricky narrative structure of an hour for the planes and a day for the boats and more than couple of days for the grunts (the intertitles lie; you don’t see a week’s worth of life on the Mole). And while Hardy has the fun job of being the unflappable pilot, the MVP for the whole movie is Mark Rylance’s small boat captain. Rylance does calm decency like no-one else I’ve ever seen. The movie is worth it just for that. Even if I did find myself afterwards thinking “All those boats came from the south coast of England. Just like all the UKIP voters who masterminded the current disorderly retreat from Europe. That’s weird…” 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Despicable M3; ever diminishing circles

The whole Despicable Meatgrinder is a lesson in diminishing returns. The first movie was great fun, the second was kind of meh with moments of whimsy, and Minions was an almost inevitable letdown. And now we swing into a third Gru movie, and it’s plain that the tank is dry. It’s a short movie, and somehow still doesn’t feel packed. In a way, that’s all to the good, since it doesn’t get enough time to wear out its welcome. 

The whole enterprise is built on three key building blocks; Gru, the girls, and the Minions. Gru is fun when he’s being mean, and even more fun when he’s trying to be mean and being tripped up by occasional kindly impulses. Despicable Me 2 had Gru being a good guy all the time, and that turned out not to be fun. For the third movie, they fire him from the Anti-Villain League, but disappointingly he doesn’t return to evil. When Gru isn’t being wicked, the girls don’t have enough to do, and neither do the Minions. Now, giving the Minions too much to do never ends well; they wreck movies with the same predictability that they wreck evil plans. But giving them nothing much to do is just as bad.

With Gru staying out of the villainy business, he fires the Minions, and they spend the rest of the movie blundering in and out of setpieces which have no real consequences for anyone else, as if they’re in their own tiny pointless movie which just happens to be camping in the middle of the minor diversion which is the main attraction. So they win a talent competition in a way that gets them all thrown in jail, and then they orchestrate a jailbreak after taking over the whole prison. That left me scratching my head a bit; on the one hand, it’s weird behaviour for Minions to go into business for themselves instead of finding a big villain to cosy up to, especially when they’ve got a whole jail to choose from, and on the other hand, if you’ve got the whole prison running just the way you want it, why would you even bother breaking out?

Back when they made Despicable Me 2, I was saying that the third movie ought to be Gru turning back to the dark side; they couldn’t quite being themselves to do that, so instead they’ve magicked up a long lost twin brother to turn villainous on his behalf. This is not the right way to go, but it’s a more interesting villain than they one they hung the movie off. Balthazar Bratt would have made a great pre-credits scene, but he’s just not funny enough to carry even the medium sized chunk of movie he’s given. I’m not sure that Dru would have been any great improvement, but Gru is at his best failing to cope with family, so it would have had that going for it.

The movie ends on a sequel hook, which is pretty much the movie they should have made instead of this one; Gru’s long lost brother Dru, abetted by the minions, snaffles all of Gru’s old villain kit and goes into business as a super villain. I’m not optimistic. I think they ought to switch the whole game around, and have Margo finally wake up to her adopted dad’s line of work. I reckon Margo, Edith and Agnes would make a perfect gang. Not that that’s open to negotiation. Some things in the Despicable universe are immutable. As Gru says when Dru starts telling Margo just how grown up she’s looking “Margo is twelve, and she will always be twelve.” 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Spiderman Homecoming; Shoulda been Vultureman

There’s a great pre-credits scene in Spiderman: Homecoming which sets up the villain for the movie, and Michael Keaton’s put-upon contractor is so wonderfully fed up that I turned to John and said “I want this to be the whole movie."

Which would have been great, probably, but it turns out that the movie we got is probably the best Marvel movie so far that wasn’t Deadpool. Astonishingly, despite having six writers, it’s that rare thing, a well written movie. The characters are funny and make sense, and the plot, for once, doesn’t involve destroying the whole world. That wonderful downbeat opening sets the tone of the rest of the movie; there’s a whole world full of superheroes, and they’re just a huge pain in the ass for everyone else.

I’ve talked before about how the endless raising of the stakes for the Marvel universe just makes the movies more and more boring, because the stunts and the need for all the characters leaves so little room for people. Spiderman leans right into that. They skip the origin story, because by this stage, who in audience isn’t going to know where Spiderman comes from? If that’s something you don’t have some vague sense of, you’re watching some other movie. Why waste time on it? They skip the end of the world story. They can’t quite get past the need for a big stunt in the middle, but even that stunt feels like they’re going through the motions. Of course you can’t cut a ferry in half and then not have it sink immediately. But at least it’s just the one ferry, and it’s not floating over an entire city threatening to crush it or destroy the whole world. For the rest of the time, Spiderman is dealing with small problems, and rather wonderfully he’s getting it wrong a lot of the time and struggling with the rest of it. 

And don’t even get me started on his personal life, which makes his efforts at being a superhero look pretty sorted. Tom Holland’s as connvincing as a teenager as anyone can be at 20, but one of the things he sells best is that you can be smart and intermittently charming and have no clue in the wide earthly world that people like you. He does teenage obliviousness so well that I was nearly as shocked as he was when he was able to ask someone out and get a tentative yes despite being the star of the movie.

Well, kind of the star. Robert Downey Jr is there, effortlessly using up all the oxygen in the room whenever he shows up, and when that’s not happening, Michael Keaton’s Vulture is putting in the hours, just another working stiff who’s turned to the dark side to pay his mortgage in a world that doesn’t care about working stiffs or even notice what they’re up to. Every time the action shifts back to his black market warehouse I remembered that I wanted a whole movie about low-rent villains scraping a living off salvaged leftovers from the apocalyptic battles which the Avengers inflict on everything they ever see.

It’s a movie which works by being resolutely small scale, and making the small scale work. There are no bit players. There’s a scene where a kid walks through a bathroom wordlessly disrupting what’s supposed to be a heart to heart between two named characters, but damnit that actor’s face tells the whole story of how weird it is to be just trying to do your business in the bathroom with that kind of nonsense going on. There’s another wordless moment where a black character doesn’t want a tour of the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. “Oh I don’t think so…” her hapless teacher begins, and the camera cuts to a black security guard making a silent gesture that says all of “Oh yes it was” and a whole lot more. And there’s all the jokes at the expense of the big movies; “Captain America - oh, he’s probably a war criminal now.” The director and the writers saw the power of tiny things, and the way that they make big things far clearer than wide angle shots of the big things ever could. If only this idea could catch on.

Baby Driver; it's terrible, really, but go anyhow

Looking forward to things is the worst. The less you know about something, the more it can surprise you. The more time you spend telling yourself how great something is going to be, the more you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And so it came to pass that I was vaguely disappointed with what’s widely claimed to be the best bubble gum movie of the year so far. By the time I got to see it, Baby Driver was going to have cure cancer, balance the national debt and retrospectively turn Suicide Squad into a decent movie. Probably just as well I didn’t leave it another week or I’d have been demanding it brought peace to the Middle East [1].

Instead, it’s just a good movie with a lot of music. And lots of acting. And lots of good dialogue. Although I know I’m supposed to like Baby best, I was torn between Jon Hamm’s bank robber and Kevin Spacey’s criminal mastermind. Each of them is the actor playing to their strengths, but they’ve been given a character who makes sense as a person. In their own minds, they’re just good guys trying to do their best in a world which owes them things they just HAVE to take. Also present in the movie; Jamie Foxx, playing a guy who really really needs to get a huge spike through his face. Great news, it happens, but not anything like as soon as it ought to have. Ideally it would have happened in a deleted “Previously on Baby Driver” scene. In a movie where most of the bad guys are somehow likeable despite everything, Jamie Foxx really stands out from the crowd. It would have been much more interesting to give him some nuance.

Fun stuff; Edgar Wright is having a great time with his stunt and steadicam budget. The music works well. The car chases are almost as good as I hoped they’d be, though there are few moments as straightforwardly pleasing as the early bit where Baby plays the Three Card trick on a busy freeway with actual cars. There’s a blissful moment when the viewer catches up with the plan, and the movie struggles to be that clever with cars afterwards. Still good, but not genius.

Best of all, it’s a film that for all of its apparent silliness is very grounded. Reality catches up with everyone, and no-one gets to ride off into the sunset. Which means that Baby Driver has a very satisfying ending. It’s honest, and it makes perfect sense, and it gives the characters pretty much what they deserve. There’s already word of a sequel, but don’t hold your breath. It took Wright more than a decade to put this heist together. 

Perhaps the best hint as to how well written this thing is that Kevin Spacey gets so many funny lines that they spilled out of the movie and into the trailer. He had so many good patter scenes that they could literally silence one of them in the movie itself and throw the dialogue into the trailer. 

 

[1] Spoiler. Peace has been brought to the Middle East tonnes of times. They always shoot it.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel; it's the quiet ones you have to watch

My Cousin Rachel is another one of those movies which exposes my abysmal ignorance of older pop culture. Daphne Du Maurier used to be medium big in the world of novels, straddling literature and popular fiction well enough that grown up people read her, but punks like me also snapped up each novel as it came out. So I ought to have at least a passing familiarity with her books, and be sitting through the movie adaptations knowing just what’s coming, and simply grading them on how well they get to a destination I already know.

Which is what John was doing, having seen a stage adaptation - which he preferred - a couple of years back. I was sitting there completely unequipped by comparison. Was Rachel going to make it? Were the police going to pounce? When was this thing even set? I still don’t know the answer to that last question. The costumes could be anything from the Regency to early Victorian, depending on the extent to which you want to believe that people in rural Cornwall just kept wearing clothes long past their sell by date. But thinking about it, it seems to me that even the latest time zone would still be before there was such a thing as police even to pounce. Not that they do.

Rachel Weisz makes a pretty good Rachel - at least to my mind - but she’s hampered by the fact that Phillip is both an arsehole and a character whose motivation is all over the place. There ought to be a tension in the movie between the possibility that Rachel is a manipulative demon and the possibility that she’s a misunderstood woman trying to make her way in a man’s world. But twenty minutes in Philip’s company is enough to make you side with Rachel either way. If she’s a harpy, great. Philip needs harpy-ing something wicked. Which makes it all the more bewildering that the other female character in the piece seems so taken with him. Clearly Louise doesn’t get out much. It sits oddly with her clearheadedness about absolutely everything else. Louise is sorted. You’d think that would make her smart enough to run a mile from Philip’s man-child. Still, I see that Holliday Granger is going to be playing Robin Ellacott in the upcoming BBC adapation of the Cormoran Strike books, and that fills me with not so much excitement as the calm reassurance that Robin’s got someone who can do the part properly.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Mummy; who's your daddy?

There’s a moment, about fifteen or twenty minutes into The Mummy when people who’re tired on Marvel movies might say to themselves “Well, they’ve got the origin story out of the way quickly enough.” Nope. The whole movie is the origin story for how Tom Cruise gets to be The Mummy, because heaven forbid that we could have two superhero style movies in one year where there’s a strong woman character with the movie named after her. Poor old Ahmanet is just the catalyst for Tom Cruise to become the title character. Which short changes Sofia Boutella, a performer who could own the screen without any dialogue in Kingsman and makes as good a fist as anyone could of the stupid dialogue in The Mummy. You could have made a perfectly decent Mummy movie for half the price by letting her do ALL the heavy lifting.

Easily the best thing about the movie they DID make is the decision to make Tom Cruise play a jerk. Tom Cruise is at his best when he plays self-absorbed dickheads, because there’s something in his face which somehow makes it easy for him to play shiftiness. Inevitably he insists on getting a reforming arc, but it’s fun til he gets there. They had a trailer before The Mummy for his other 2017 movie and it looks like he’s going to be even more of a dirtbag in that. One advantage of making Cruise a jerk is that it becomes less difficult to understand his epic lack of chemistry with female co-stars. Annabelle Wallis is, for all I know, a brilliant actress, but Cruise brings out her inner tree-stump every time they’re on screen together. It’s easier to understand when he’s being annoying.

Other weird bits; clearly the writing team shared my undying love for American Werewolf in London, since there’s a running gag through the middle of the movie where Tom Cruise is haunted by the buddy he took for a suicidal walk in the Iraqi countryside and indirectly turned into one of the living dead.

And finally, just as in the credits, Russell Crowe as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hyde may have involved less actual acting for Crowe, but it was weird to watch him set up as the middle aged avuncular foil to Tom Cruise’s young gun when Cruise is a year older than him. Possibly Cruise is being kept in a vault full of frozen mercury in between movies.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Wonder Woman; it's eh, good, I guess

On balance, it’s a good thing that DC’s first non-awful movie is also their first one with a woman superhero and a woman director. It’s still a bit depressing that it doesn’t rise far above non-awful.

There’s a load of pointless quibbling to be had over whether Wonder Woman is a feminist icon, or just the same old superhero male crap, except in a skirt, and I’m not ready to wear myself out trying to make sense of which way that argument ought to go, or which side of it Wonder Woman the movie lands. In my opinion it makes its best points either way in the middle stretch. Themyscira does not make a huge amount of sense in any terms, and Wonder Woman visits Flanders rapidly degenerates into interchangeable super heroism and property damage. There’s a nice quiet bit in the middle where Wonder Woman - or Princess Diana - is trying to make sense of Edwardian London and the place a woman can have in it. It’s played for laughs - which makes a nice change in a DC movie all on its own - but still, it’s got some point to it which might even resonate today. I particularly liked the subtext for the first moment she hits London and says “It’s awful”. Yup, says Chris Pine’s character “It’s not for everyone.” Which would have made a pretty good UKIP slogan.

One of my least favorite things about Fast and Furious Six was that it casually schwacked Gal Gadot’s character. She wasn’t really adding very much, but there’s a certain zing to Gadot that made her character pop out a bit from the usual background of cars and stripperiffic costumes, and it was upsetting to see her chucked fatally off an aeroplane apparently to make one of the other characters distracted for the post credits scene. I wasn’t sure if she could act, but I thought she probably had enough in the tank for Wonder Woman. And at some points she does; at others it doesn’t quite land. There’s a moment near the end where she just gets cross and then gets serious about bouncing Ares’ head off the pavement, and I think it was supposed to land like this moment. But it doesn’t, because we haven’t had enough time to buy into the character in the same way, and Gal Gadot is simply not in Millie Bobby Brown’s class.

The thing which bugged me the whole way through is the incoherent attitude to war. The Amazons hate war, but spend their whole time preparing for it. Diana angsts constantly about how war is killing people, but she kills more people than anyone else in the movie. The Amazons on Themyscira are cut off entirely from the world, but somehow speak ALL the languages. And yet don’t have the same knowledge of anything else that the world is getting up to, such as machine guns. Nope, if war comes back, it better come back old school, with spears and bows, because that’s what the Amazons have planned for. Never in the history of conflict has anyone been quite so deeply prepared to fight the last war instead of the next one. Mind you, I can’t fault the preparation; it’s pointless, but elegant. In the few setpiece old-school fights we see, the Amazons are magnificent.

Other fun things; all the Amazons trying to do Israeli accents with varying degrees of success, because it was apparently easier to try to sync everyone else up to Gal Gadot’s accent than to get her a dialect coach who could get Gal Gadot to do an accent everyone else could match easily. The spectacle of a whole paradisical island cut off from reality and full of Israeli-sounding people getting ready for a war that’s never going to happen is a subtext all of its own, but I am so not going there.

Best fun thing of all; Chris Pine naked and embarassed, trying to explain what a wristwatch is and how it makes it easy to know when to do things, and Diana asking “And you let that little thing tell you what to do?” as if we’re still talking about a wristwatch. 

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean; Salazar's Revenge. Zombie ... everything


That, right there, is the movie reviewing itself. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has climbed so far up itself that sharks are jumping it. And not just any old sharks. Zombie sharks. That’s how far past its sell-by date POTC has got.
It’s hard to come up with anything to say which that picture doesn’t say better. One plus is that it’s the shortest POTC movie ever, though I guarantee you that it won’t feel like it, because it takes its own sweet time getting to what little point it’s got in play. There’s about a TV episode’s worth of plot beefed out with side quests and digressions and flashbacks. There is simultaneously - as always - way too much Jack Sparrow and not nearly enough of anything else. I’d always found Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner the most tedious part of the first three movies, but then they rolled out his son and suddenly Orlando Bloom seemed like the second coming of George Clooney. And Orlando Bloom actually shows up, so you can check the generations of the Turner family against each other.
Barbossa gets schwacked heroically saving the daughter he never knew he had, but POTC is worse than Fast and Furious when it comes to bringing people back from certain death (or better offers) so I assume that Barbossa will be back shortly. I hope he will, anyhow, since I’ve an unholy fondness for this. I admire a man who can say to no to Keira Knightley. Who is also back in the last minute of the movie, classing up the joint something wicked as she can’t help doing.
Jack survives everything, as of course he does. And from time to time he even earns his pay; there’s a scene with a guillotine which is wonderfully imaginative and works partly because Depp’s schtick is at its best when Jack is being terrified and bewildered. Just in case we get confused about that, it’s immediately followed by a scene with a botched hanging and our two juvenile leads and it’s just awful.
As is so often the case when a movie has cost more than 250 million dollars, you can see where the money went, but not why anyone thought it should. There’s a huge opening setpiece in which the Sparrow gang steals an entire bank and drags it through a small town. On the one hand, this is impossible; on the other hand the idea of dragging a vault’s been done properly in this; and on the third, most important hand, this took ten minutes and cost just what you’d think it would cost to destroy a fake town and it doesn’t advance the plot by an inch.
One thing I will say for it; somehow, Javier Bardem doesn’t feel as outrageously wasted as Salazar as Ian McShane did as Blackbeard. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a waste of his talent, but somehow it’s not as annoying. Possibly because I think that it’s always a shame when you have McShane on call and don’t just spend the whole movie letting him swear poetically at people he’s disappointed by. He’d have a lot to do in this movie.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Colossal; Monsters are among us

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Colossal had me with the poster, because Anne Hathaway smiling at me is enough even before you add Korean monsters. Then I read the reviews, and nothing could stop me; Korean monster movie mashed up with rom-com. Even if you get something like that wrong, it’s going to be interesting.

Colossal is more than interesting; it’s a good movie which also has something to say about something ordinary and horrible. There aren’t really giant scary monsters which stomp around cities crushing buildings, but there are way too many people who stomp around their houses crushing the people who love them, whether it’s with words or fists. And I don’t fool myself for a moment; a silly movie about monsters isn’t going to put an end to domestic violence, or even put much of a dent in it. The kind of person who comes away from a movie shaking their heads and hoping they never do those things is not the kind of person who does those things. The most you can hope for is that the closing message might just get some of the decent people to take one more step when they see it happen.

Still. It’s a good movie. Anne Hathaway is probably not a great actress, but she’s got charisma to burn and the guts to play against that charisma. Gloria is a mess, and the script doesn’t bother making her misunderstood; everyone but Gloria’s got Gloria’s number. It takes her half the movie to realise how messed up she is, and the other half to realise how messed up her choices in other people have been. And five glorious minutes at the end to do something about it.

One of the cleverest things the script does is get the gag out of the way as quickly as possible. By the time we’re forty minutes in, Gloria has figured out that she’s the monster terrorising Seoul. This is two kinds of good. Firstly, the audience figured this out from the poster, and who wants to spend the whole movie watching the cast catch up with the audience. Secondly, and much more importantly, it gives us the rest of the movie to see what she’s going to do with that information, and that’s much more interesting than spinning out the surprise. 

Men don’t come out of this well. The cast is tiny, and Anne Hathaway is the only woman. The men are variously idiots, bullies, idiots, or bullying idiots. It’s slightly ironic that one of the best dumb movies I’ve seen about a woman sorting herself out completely fails the Bechdel test.  It’s disappointing that Dan Stevens is only there to play a slightly less awful boyfriend, since The Guest has left me with unrealistic expectations of Dan Stevens; on the other hand, it’s cool that Dan Steven is willing to play a jerk in a good cause.

Above all, it’s a funny, curiously warm film about small town monsters and the possibility of getting beyond our bad impulses. Anne Hathaway makes it work well enough that I never once found myself wondering if anyone else would have been better. Since it’s not an ACTUAL Korean monster movie, I don’t imagine I need to worry about a remake with anyone else … 

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant needed to make up the ground lost in Prometheus, which is a tall order. Ridley Scott doesn’t have it in him to make a bad looking movie, but someone still has to write the damned thing, and it needs to make something approaching sense for the visuals to have any real point. Prometheus set out to explain something about the origin of yer ackshul aliens, and pretty much tripped over its dick, since the explanation didn’t make any sense and wrecked the continuity of the earlier good movies even if you somehow thought it did make sense. And the writers’ cunning ploy to mask the idiocy of the plot by making everyone on the screen an idiot didn’t really cover up anything.

Covenant’s job, apparently, was to paper over the cracks and somehow link these new movies into the canon. It’s worth recapping where Prometheus left off. Elizabeth Shaw has a very familiar looking alien spacecraft she doesn’t know how to fly, and an android head in a bag. And she sets off to find the mysterious engineers who presumably created all this embuggeration.

Fast forward a decade or two, and there’s a colony ship chugging along through space which picks up the universe’s weirdest distress signal - I think we can all agree that playing John Denver is a cry for help, but it’s not generally seen as functionally equivalent to a Mayday. Never mind, they turn the colony ship around to go take a look at what it might all be. Turns out, it’s the Engineers’ planet, and somehow Elizabeth Shaw found it, found a whole extra body to nail onto the loose head she had in the bag, and that the combo went completely nuts and annhilated the whole population of the planet with a souped up version of the same bug which made Prometheus such a fun festival. Spoilers, I know. It takes the crew of the Covenant most of the movie to figure this out, but time is short on the internet and I figure the word will be out by the time anyone reads this.

As wiping things out plans go, the notion seems faulty. The Engineers are star faring. They ought to be all over the place, not just on one planet, and if the colonies suddenly stopped getting news from home, you’d think twenty years would be time enough for some of them to come and take a poke around the ruins. But nope, the planet’s deserted. Nothing but plants to be seen. Because the pathogen from Prometheus kills anything with meat in it, as Michael Fassbender’s creepy android cheerily points out.

Speaking of Michael Fassbender, you get two for the price of one. He’s playing not one, but two androids. They are supposed to be different, but since one of them is way off the the left on the Lecter spectrum and the other is a taciturn idiot, it’s not as much of a stretch as an actor of Fassbender’s talent needs to showcase his art. In fact, he may have been a smidge more interesting in Assassin’s Creed, depending on whether you prefer him messing up a computer game, or a movie franchise nearly older than he is. Either way it’s sort of impressive that he’s in two SF movies in the space of a year which really don’t work. Covenant does waste fewer Oscar winners, however.

Anyhow, the whole monstrous stitch stuff together bit of the movie boils down to this; David has spent some long span of years messing about with the Engineers’ creepy pathogen trying to come up with the perfect implementation of the monster, and the hapless crew of Covenant are his perfect petri dish so that he can finally get them looking just like they do in the very first movie. So the villain was people all along. Well, robots, and people made the robots, and you know what, it’s not remotely as clever as it thinks it is. Because no matter how much you buy into the notion that David designed the perfect creature of Alien, there’s still a huge hole where there needs to be an explanation of how the setup for Alien comes about. How does the bummer ending of Covenant turn into a crashed alien spacecraft full of eggs on a howling desolation which is definitely not any of the planets we’ve seen so far in these new dumber movies?

Presumably the third movie in this effort will try to answer this. But the question is, why bother? Dan O’Bannon took Giger’s drawings and a half memory of AE van Vogt’s novels and hashed out a perfectly good back story for the creatures nearly forty years ago, and Scott had the excellent good sense to realise that there was no need to explain it then. Nothing’s changed in the meantime.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Train to Busan; metaphor for what?

It’s a truism to comment that horror movies are always about the things which society can’t find another way to talk about. But that’s easier to puzzle out when you know how a society works in the first place. When South Korea makes a zombie movie, what - as Talleyrand might have said - did they mean by it?

Which is not to say that you need to know what they meant by it. It will still work if you don’t. It’s fast zombies versus clueless unarmed civilians on a train. The only thing that the civilians have got going for them is that zombies haven’t figured out how doors work. On the other hand, they have figured out - kind of - how glass works, inasmuch as they can see through it and if they get enough weight pushing against it, it will break. 

And those are the rules of engagement, pretty much. The humans have brains, and they know how to work a door handle. The zombies have rage, and numbers. The drama, as opposed to the thrills, comes from the uneasy truth that brains can be a problem just as much as they can be a solution. Brains can be greedy, panicky or just plain dumb. Brains can be too smart for their own good. Brains can see problems that aren’t really there. We get a lot of that, and the zombies get a lot of snacks.

This is one of those movies where it’s a bad idea to get too attached to anyone. And since it’s a South Korean movie, that includes the adorable moppet. The Host taught us that moppets are fair game in Korea, not like Hollywood. In Hollywood, if there’s a kid, the kid is going to make it even if no-one else does. In Korea, they eat dogs and schwack moppets. These guys are not like westerners.

Which brings me back to trying to figure out what this thing looked like to its original audience. South Korea has spent nearly seventy years with an increasingly insane next door neighbour. In principle, they’re in favour of uniting the two Koreas; in practice they’re uneasily aware that 70 years of craziness, famine, and more craziness have made North Korea a place so different from South Korea that they don’t even really speak the same language any more. Unification would involve 25 million hungry people with no idea how to live in South Korea’s world and no reason to stay where they are.

There’s no way that this kind of worry isn’t rattling through a Korean audience’s mind when they watch Train to Busan, but it’s hard to know how they match it up with what’s happening. The zombies are the result of a corporate experiment gone wrong, which is probably an echo of Korean unease about the way the chaebol system dominates their lives. (all K-Horror movies I’ve seen ground their monster in either commerce or the American occupation, or if possible both). The infection is rapid, and overwhelming; within minutes of being bitten you’re another zombie roaring and lurching after the remaining normal humans so that you can hunt them down and eat them. Is that just modern fast zombie lore, or is there a subtext I can’t pick up? And how much of the human dumbness we see is a comment on things which Korean society doesn’t like about itself? There’s a lot of obvious dislike of capitalism (the most odious character in the movie is a COO, and the main protagonist is a fund manager whose job is his evil side), yet there’s a continuing thread of respect for certain kinds of authority - the kind of authority represented by middle-ranking guys trying to do their job decently. The nearest thing in the movie to an uncomplicated hero is the train driver, who’s terrified and yet keeping it together without any flash.

As a movie, even for someone who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on in Korea, Train to Busan gets the job done. It’s scary, and thrilling, and there’s enough depth to the character that it matters when yet another one of them gets chopped down by bad luck, bad karma or bad thinking (the COO is bad to the bone that way). And there are moments where they really get their money’s worth out of the zombies. There’s not a lot of gore, but there’s a lot of imagination in coming up with new ways to make the zombies into a menace that’s just out of reach. Naturally there’s talk of a remake in English. I think I’d prefer a world where they spent the money on helping us understand the original better.

Bill James: Harpur & Iles

I’ve just spent most of the reading time of the last six weeks catching up on the adventures of Harpur and Iles and for that matter Ember and Shale, and it was one of those things where I couldn’t really stop and at the same time wondered why I was pressing on. The last time I kept going when so much nothing was happening was when I watched several hours of Big Brother live. When I did that, it was because I’d been conditioned by years of movies and TV to think that if nothing happened for several minutes it was only so that the real surprise would be a big jolt. So the surpassing dullness of Big Brother kept me watching thinking “Any minute now.” Hours later I realised I was watching a new form of TV, and I’ve stayed away from it ever since.

With Harpur & Iles, there should have been a nagging warning in the back of my brain. I used to buy those books as they came out, something which got more and more inconvenient and expensive the longer the series of books ran. At first they were Penguin paperbacks and you could even find them in Greek bookshops, which is where I found the first one. By 2006, they were limited run hardbacks and the only way to find them at all was on the internet. So I just didn’t buy the next one, or the one after that, and so on. At the end of March it occurred to me to wonder what had been happening to Bill James, and I discovered there’d been ten more books, all available on Kindle. Now, what I should have thought was something on the lines of “It’s been a decade, why do you even care?”, and if I’d had to think about ten physical books and the postage, and where I’d keep them after I’d read them … But it was Kindle, and they were cheap, so I just went and bought them all.

And I am not the wiser of it all. Because nothing’s happening. And it’s happening in an incredibly repetitive way. Everyone’s locked in place, for book after book, having the same conversations and doing nothing. And the conversations have a weird sameyness, no matter who’s talking; they’re all speaking in a strange mixture of formalism and ungrammatical slang, as if everyone in the nameless city had the same, completely demented, English teacher. It stops being clever, then it stops being funny, and then it starts getting in the way. Maybe if you’re not reading ten of them one after another.

I’d probably let all of that slide, but there’s one over-arching piece of weirdness which makes the stasis even harder to stay with. The first book in this series was published 32 years ago, and there’s been one every year since then. No-one has aged a day. Harpur still has two teenage daughters, just as he did when we met him first. He’s still a Detective Chief Superintendent. The world hasn’t stood still; Harpur in the recent books lives in a world with smart phones. It’s just that he, and his city, live in a bubble where no-one ages or learns anything. In the early going of the series, there was a fair bit of turnover, particularly among the criminal masterminds, but twenty years ago in my real world Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale rose to the top of their gangs and they’ve mooched along in uneasy partnership every since. 

And there are so many ways in which nothing happens. Nothing major changes; everyone is the same age and has the same worries and grievances. No-one’s position changes; any time anything appears which might threaten the status quo, it fizzles out. And even where the fizzling involves death and violence, the violence happens off-stage. We never see the action. We see the characters talk about what might happen, or think about what might happen, and then the story jumps a little into the non-future and the characters talk inconclusively about the aftermath of the action. And even the conversations go nowhere; Harpur and Iles are forever having conversations which loop around with neither one of them answering the other’s questions. I think it’s supposed to be wry, but it gets tiresome if you read as much of it in one big run as I did.

I’ve often said that I read detective stories not because of the story, but because I like the company of the characters. In a way Bill James has found a way to stretch that idea past my personal breaking point; there’s nothing but the characters. But if they’re just spinning their wheels for decades at a time … 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; Guys, just rob a bank

I liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy because Rocket Raccoon is the closest thing I’m ever going to get to a spirit animal, and I went to the second one hoping they’d go heavy on the Rocket and light on everything else. Nope. Once again, the gang have to save the whole galaxy. I liked it that Rocket at least pointed out that if they did it twice they could jack up their rates. As usual in Marvel world, saving the galaxy involves a stupid amount of CGI, allied in this instance to a stupid inability to see that their best value on CGI is Groot and Rocket. In fact, someone may already have figured that out, since there’s a lovely opening sequence of most of the gang fighting a huge CGI monster just out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances to Mr Blue Sky in the foreground. I’m going to pretend that was a coded message to the suits about what really works in these movies.

Other than that, way too much of this movie is about two of my least favourite movie things; saving the universe and fambly. GoG Vol 2 came hard on the heels of Fast and the Furious Vol 8, and both have Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, and way the hell too much angsting about fambly along with way too many CGI explosions. Kurt Russell actually has tonnes of things to do in this movie, mostly bad things. I don’t ever remember seeing him as a villain before, unless you count Overboard and I bet even Kurt’s hoping we’d all forgotten that. Anyhow, for those of you who harbour the feeling that Starlord was kind of a douche-bag scraping by on superficial charm, GoG Vol 2 is the movie which explains where he got the DNA for that. If that was all the family-ing it would still be too much, but you get his alternate dad thrown in along with a sibling rivalry plot for Gamora and Nebula. As you can imagine, this doesn’t leave anything like enough room for my spirit animal to do his thing.

Which is a pity. Rocket is part of a movie which would be fun to watch; mean-minded low-lives in a weird sci-fi world just doing mean-minded low-life things and getting buried under the consequences of their own stupidity. There’s a whole sub plot about just that, and it even has Elizabeth Debicki as the retributor in chief. Rocket vs Debicki would have been a fun movie all on its own. Consider, if you will, one of the great dumb movies of long ago; Kelly’s Heroes. A bunch of lugs set out to steal a tonne of gold, and have many adventures as they try to ignore World War II. If you made that today, stealing the gold would be a side-plot, and the heroes would be torn away from their simple self interest into some crazed quest to stop Hitler from getting a H-bomb.

But, you say, it’s Guardians of the Galaxy! They have to, you know, guard the galaxy. Dude, they totally don’t. Nothing would be funnier than a group of guys who called themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy but never did anything other than knock over small town bank branches while drunk. That would make a great running joke. Or maybe it’s too much like modern politics. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Fast and Furious 8: They should try it without the cars, just to see what happens

The three magic ingredients of the Fast and Furious series - in the minds of the producers at least - are cars, more cars and fambly. Which was fine when the various car-toons were doing stuff which was small scale and seemed really to require cars. Things like stealing cars, for example. After the fifth movie, everyone had a collective embolism and started spending their time sending fleets of cars after McGuffins which could be stolen more conveniently on foot. Which was sometimes fun, but it’s getting kind of dumb. Meanwhile, they’re spending so much money on the pointless stunts that they actually have a petty cash fund big enough to hire in proper actors to outclass the stars. Last time round it was Kurt Russell (who makes a welcome return); this time it’s Helen Mirren having great fun playing a cockney crime duchess.

That’s possibly less of a casting coup than hiring Charlize Theron as their main villain. The last time Theron got involved with car chases, it resulted in Fury Road. This time, it did not. FF8 probably spent more on stunts and cars than Fury Road, but money isn’t everything.

What we get instead of the controlled lunacy of Fury Road is the usual mix. Yet another cheesy street race scene. A lot of emoting about fambly. A couple of big chases in the middle to give the cars something to do, and then a climax with a whole load of cars doing nothing they’ve got any business doing, with explosions, and something huge in the middle of it for the cars to collide with. They’ve tried it with an Antonov, so this time it was a huge Russian submarine. It says a lot about how oppressively Michael Bay-ish the climax is that it wasn’t til I got home that it struck me that a submarine couldn’t possibly keep up with speeding cars. At the time I was too bludgeoned by explosions to ask how something with a top speed of forty miles an hour could crash through pack ice and then ram through it fast enough to keep up with skidding Lamborghinis. 

In fairness, I was distracted by other idiocies. The Rock kicked a torpedo off course, even though the Rock doesn’t weigh two tonnes and torpedoes do. The Fambly kept announcing that missiles were locked on to them even though anti-tank missiles don’t lock on and even if they did, no-one’s putting lock-on detectors into even the very best Lamborghinis. The submarine launched a missile at the Fambly, and they immediately knew it was a heat seeker though again there doesn’t seem to have been any way for them to know. Or care. Dom took care of it, anyhow, doing the traditional end of the movie Dom thing of ramping his car over something. A billion bullets got fired at the Fambly and not one of them hit anything of importance. 

And the strain of having cars solve problems is really starting to show. They’re like the IT crowd now. Have you tried sending an assortment of muscle cars after the problem? The sheer idiocy of the whole thing was underlined neatly by having the Stath sort out just about everything by flying onto Charlize’s airborne HQ and shoot everyone he met, all while carrying a baby. On the one hand, Chow Yun Fat did it much better twenty years ago; on the other hand, the Stath was a million percent more efficient than the whole Fambly, working with no cars and no Fambly.

Well, only just about everything. He didn’t shoot Charlize, who parachuted clear of the carnage to show up - presumably - in FF9 two years from now. And there’s no telling who else might show up. The Fast and Furious movies have form on killing people and then having them miraculously pitch up again alive after all, and this time around they hit a new low by resuscitating Luke Evans. Who got smeared on a runway on FF6, was somehow alive enough to be in a coma in FF7, and has walked that off completely by the final reel of FF8 in a resurrection even more ridiculous that Letty’s complete recovery from being dead in FF6. So don’t write anyone off. In Fast and Furious land, the only thing which stays dead is the laws of physics.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell; looking great might not be enough

Ghost in the Shell got hobbled coming out of the gate by casting a bunch of Europeans in a live action version of one of the great animes. I’m still not sure why they cast Scarlett Johansson in a role which ought to have been played by a Japanese actor, but that gets lost in the bigger question of why they bothered to remake the movie in the first place. There hasn’t been a remake of Gone with the Wind. Give or take a TV show and this there hasn’t been a remake of Casablanca. So why remake one of the great Japanese animes? I still don’t really know.

One possible reason is that they had the technology to do it in live action and make it look gorgeous. Because they did, and it does. No matter what else you don’t like about the new Ghost in the Shell, there’s something dead in you if you don’t think it looks great. From the very first shot, there’s a tremendous commitment to the look. Everything has been considered. The hospital smocks have got an origami texture which they don’t need, but which instantly tells you you’re not in Kansas any more. And the movie sticks with that all the way. The art is in a million tiny details. GitS is something you could watch again just to catch all the design choices.

And even though Scarlett has taken a huge amount of heat for taking the role, she’s still an actor who’s always better than action material. So she’s always hypnotic when the camera locks onto her. The Major is messed up, and ScaJo is a good enough performer to sell that while looking otherworldly and beautiful. So there’s that, even if the Major’s combat uniform is so skintight and not-quite-flesh-toned that looking at ScaJo in motion always feels vaguely pervy at best. It draws way too much attention to something which isn’t discussed. Creepy corporate overlords made a perfect robot body for combat, and - somehow - that perfect body for combat is also perfect in other ways. Irrelevant ways. There’s a conversation to be had about objectification of the female body and I don’t know what all else, and the movie just doesn’t even bother. Partly that’s because anime has always been kind of creepy that way, but mostly it’s because the movie is trying to be grown up about something else, and just doesn’t have the insight to cover more than one big question in between explosions.

Which is a pity, in all kinds of ways. Ghost in the Shell is all about what it means to be a person, what it means to have a soul, and where the soul might reside. To be honest, the movie doesn’t quite land that discussion, so that maybe I’m asking too much for it to think about gender politics as well. But the producers went to the trouble of remaking a movie which did its job. If they remade it, why bother unless they were going to do something more?

It’s also a somewhat confusing movie. Part of the Major’s dissociation from reality is the way that she keeps glitching, seeing things which aren’t there but might be part of her memories, part of the reality which has been stolen from her. But a lot of the action scenes feel like pages from the same book, full of glitches and things which break continuity and make no sense. Is she imagining all of that? Is all this taking place in some kind of Matrix? Turns out, not really. It’s just bad staging. It looks great, but it doesn’t make a button of sense.

And although they give pretty much all the big roles to non-Japanese actors, there’s one breathtaking exception. Yup, centre screen as the head of the team, that’s Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, stubbornly delivering all of his lines in Japanese and effortless demonstrating why the movie could have worked better if they’d used Japanese performers for every single role.  

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Free Fire; there's a game in this

Free Fire isn’t fun exactly, though it played out with a continuous laugh track from the people in the row behind me, all of whom should probably be on some kind of watch list. There’s something uncomfortably ridiculous about someone struggling to avoid being run over by a guy he just tried to shoot, but it’s not laugh-out loud funny to watch - and hear - someone’s head being squashed flat under a tire.

Like a lot of weirdly good movies I’ve seen lately, Free Fire is something I could respect without wanting to watch again. It’s completely faithful to its own goofy idea, and even if we don’t really get to know the characters, they’re all recognisably individual people. Well, mostly recognisable. There are moments when the staging, the scenery and the dust get in the way of figuring out just who’s taken another flesh wound.

Flesh wounds are everywhere, mostly for plot reasons. If the cast could run, they’d run out of the warehouse, so it’s important to the plot that everyone get some kind of wallop to slow them down a bit. From about half way in, pretty much everyone still left alive is squirming and crawling through the rubble. But still game, and still magically finding enough bullets to go on potting each other. Hollywood runs on a two-tier model for gunshots usually; mooks fly through the air instantly dead if a gun goes off anywhere near them, and anyone on the poster just shrugs off direct hits from bazookas. Meanwhile, in the real world, the infamous North Hollywood shootout demonstrated that you can get shot again and again and keep getting on with business until you finally bleed out. Free Fire goes that way.

And it gets weirdly samey after a bit. It’s not quite boring, but it’s relentlessly one-note. So, although I’m glad I saw it, it’s not something I need to see again. It’s not quite successful as a movie because it doesn’t quite have a story, just an inciting incident after which two gangs slowly shoot each other to bits til the cops finally show up.

On the other hand, it did feel just like a game. If we had a bag of 1970s looking figures in dodgy beige (and one blue suit!), we could put on a game just like it, since so many of our skirmish games seem to turn into pointless bloodbaths where both sides keep shooting until there’s no-one left standing. Of all the movies I’ve seen lately, Free Fire is the one you could most easily turn into a small war-game.

Other stray thoughts; this is the second thing I’ve seen Brie Larson in within the space of a week, and I don’t know what to make of her career plans. She may be trying to carve out a niche as “smart woman who hangs out with nitwits in gun battles” or she may just be taking every job that comes her way. Armie Hammer has always annoyed me a bit, but it turns out that if you give him a beard and make his character actually annoying, he turns into Canadian Jon Hamm and becomes both fun and charismatic. Sharlto Copley, on the other hand, is beginning to make me think that he’s only acting when he tries to play sane people, which now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do. He’s the target of one of Brie Larson’s best lines, when she introduces him sotto voce to Cillian Farrell “Vernon was mistakenly diagnosed as a child prodigy, and he’s never recovered.” We’ve all known someone like that, though most of them don’t show up in electric blue suits with a truck load of assault rifles to sell to the IRA.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Shane Kuhn: The Asset

Move over Dan Brown, there’s a new worst thriller writer in my landscape.

Shane Kuhn’s The Asset is a book I hate-read, something I haven’t done in years. I was startled to realise that it wasn’t a first novel, because so much of what it made it terrible was classic first novel stuff. Marty Stu protagonist? My word yes. Love interest actually called Love? Why not? Explanations of character background which read like research material left in by mistake? Whole front half of the book. Cliffhangers resolved by idiotic fake-outs? Present and wrong. “Gritty" descriptions of things which are so wrong that they make everything else wrong by association? Oh yeah. 

Why did I even try to finish it? Largely because I’d read an enthusiastic review and I wanted to believe that there was something later in the book which would justify it. No, there isn’t. The Asset starts terrible and stays terrible all the way to the bitter end. There is nothing to redeem it. The plot’s dumb. The main character is fantastically annoying in more ways than I could have thought possible. Everyone else is hateful. The thrilling incidents cluttering up the action seem to have been pulled together by using Cards Against Humanity to reconstruct drunken memories of terrible 1990s TV spy shows. Any technical thing I could check was wrong, which swept the ground away from the over-arching conceit that this was a chilling insight into the weaknesses of the TSA’s efforts to protect US aviation.

Above all, it’s a hate letter to the TSA. The nicest TSA employee in the book is depicted as a drunk whose murder will surprise nobody; everyone else is an incompetent swine. The one great exception is our hero, who is an unappreciated genius who nonetheless has managed to carve out a magnificent career as a consultant to the TSA, being paid a fortune to give them advice they either ignore or cover up. The whole opening of the book reads like the kind of pathetic roman a clef you’d get from a guy stuck in a dead end job, a long rant in which he settles all the scores he’s got with his co-workers while imagining a world in which he gets the luxury life he dreams he deserves. Which is weird, because Shane Kuhn doesn’t seem to be a frustrated cube rat who’s somehow locked a literary agent’s kids in a basement full of acid; he’s a writer and director with a butt-load of credits, and the idea that an experienced writer is somehow spamming this stuff out is so bizarre I almost think it’s intended as a joke. Either that or he’s got a friend in the TSA and lent him his name for a week. I dunno. 

Anyhow, it’s rotten. It’s the first book I’ve actually deleted from my Kindle rather than just marking it as read and leaving it lying around. For all I know, Kuhn’s other books are better - it’s hard to imagine how they could be worse - but why take the chance?

Life; Gravity meets Alien, and you shouldn't meet the result

Life seems to have been made to answer a question no-one’s asked; what if you made a crap version of Gravity? And now I know the answer, and I’m not the better of it. Want to see a movie in which everyone’s floating in space and in tonnes of trouble? Check out Gravity. Want to see a movie where half a dozen people get eaten by a space monster? Watch the original Alien. I don’t know what the reason for watching Life would be. In my case it was straightforwardly “Nothing else was on this week.”, which is a terrible reason in a world where I could always have stayed home or even watched something for a second time.

It’s good looking, I’ll give it that, but it’s good looking in the service of nothing in particular. They’ve gone out of their way to gimmick up a plausible looking replica of the International Space Station, but making that look realistic makes it all the more jarring that they’ve staffed it with idiots who don’t have a plan. Here you’ve got six of the smartest people off the planet, trying to figure out whether there’s life in a soil sample for Mars, and just about every part of the plan is stupid. The moment where it all goes pear-shaped is when Calvin, the hideous little blob of god-knows-what crushes the exo-biologist's hand and then squirms and stabs its way out of the glove-box glove it’s just managed to empty. The science team has full control over the atmosphere inside the glove-box, and they’ve already figured out that Calvin needs at least some oxygen and warmth to keep going. Why isn’t the box configured to flood with refrigerated Halon? Calvin’s not going to get much done at -100 C. Or just vent the box to vacuum. Or a hundred and one other things, any of which could have been in the plan that they’ve got one whole character for explaining. Seriously, one sixth of the cast is quarantine officers, and they had no machinery in place to sterilise the lab if things went weird. Did humanity lose its only VHS copy of The Andromeda Strain?

Later on Calvin gets on to the outside of the ISS, which I would have seen as “problem solved”, but he somehow sneaks back in through “the thruster manifolds”. This is idiotic. The whole thing about the ISS is that the living spaces are airtight. If they weren’t, well, it would all end very badly, very quickly. So something on the outside of the ISS has no way INTO the ISS. If there was a way in, no matter how narrow, all the air would come out, and then there would be tears before bedtime. Once Calvin’s outside, you just leave him there until space does the job of suffocating and freeze drying him for you. But that would have been a short movie, so he sneaks back in and gets back to killing the whole crew one after another.

In ways which don’t make a button of sense. Calvin’s abilities are pretty much whatever the hell the script needs from moment to moment; hides everywhere, runs around, swims in zero gravity, knows what all the machines do even though there’s no way he could have figured it out, knows what the characters are thinking even when there’s no evidence the characters are thinking at all … Whatever we need for a jump scare. It reaches the nadir when Calvin shows up hidden wrapped around a character’s leg. How did he even get there and why did he bother hiding? Because they needed a low-rent John Hurt at breakfast moment, I think. After that Calvin’s ability to figure out the controls of an escape capsule and pull them just the right way to de-orbit it was just “meh, I guess, whatever."

Everyone dies. I mean, everyone dies. All the cast, and then - inplicitly - the whole population of planet Earth, since in a bait and switch you can see from Jupiter orbit, Calvin gets down to the surface and schwacks some kindly Asian looking fishermen. I’d say this rules out a sequel, but maybe they have daydreams of a whole series of movies in which more and more Calvins kill their way through all seven billion of us.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Get Out; just go and see it

I very nearly gave Get Out  a miss, since the reviews were all calling it a horror movie, and horror doesn’t fill any gaps in my life. As chance and release schedules played out, it was the only thing running that week which didn’t need me to carry an insulin shot, so I took the gamble that it was only horrifying for white liberal movie reviewers.

So it proved. It’s probably not going to be the best movie I see all year, but it’s the best I’ve seen so far, and it’s likely to be in the small set of movies I recommend to people from 2017. 

This is largely because it is the first thing I’ve seen in ages which is written, rather than carefully stitched together around expensive set pieces. There’s an idea here, and the movie has to sneak up on it, and along the way it just builds up the sense of unease. It’s not just the growing acceptance that these creepy white people are up to no good; it’s the creeping realisation that we’re all a bit like that, but we just don’t have a well worked out plan to back up our little bits of unreasoning racism and white privilege. There’s enough of that in the first hour that most people are going to wince at least once in troubled recollection of something which seemed harmless at the time.

It probably helps that the director and writer started out in comedy. Successful comedy starts from seeing people as people, and then just dialling one bit up to the point where it starts being funny. Every now and then you hit a sweet spot where the what’s funny is still somehow likeable, and you wind up with a half hour comedy show that runs for a decade, but even when you don’t do that, you’re still trying to think about what makes people tick. And as I’ve said repeatedly in this blog, you don’t have to destroy the whole world; if you’ve made the characters work, it’s enough that their world is coming to an end.

So, in Get Out, it’s just one amiable guy in peril. Chris is a decent guy, just trying to get along. The world’s tilted against him, but he doesn’t want any trouble. He’s never looking for a fight; just for a quiet way to get around the awkwardness. When a racist cop wants to see his ID, Chris looks for the path of least resistance. Somehow, that says a lot more about quiet systemic racism than an angry scene would have, though just for the fun of it his white girlfriend has the angry scene on his behalf. Through the whole moment, Chris’s face is reminding us that this is not how it goes when he’s on his own.

It’s only a week later when I’m thinking about the set up, that I realise that it’s part of why it feels so satisfying when Chris finally starts pushing back and trying to save himself. At every step of his escape plan, he’s forceful and direct and clever. He’s terrified but he’s seeing the angles and playing them, clawing his way out of the trap an inch at a time. There’s something powerful in those moments, something which makes Get Out a weirdly feel good film.

As a bonus for actual comedy fans, the movie has its very own Arbogast in Chris’s best friend Rod, who works for the TSA, that one-stop punchline for everything wrong with US law enforcement. What’s delightful is that no-one takes Rod seriously, but Rod’s both almost right and the one man fire brigade who might just save Chris if he can put the whole thing together. Rod thinks the worst of white people, and adorably thinks that the TSA is a real band of heroes; he’s right about himself if not the rest of the TSA, and only wrong about white people in that he’s not thinking worst enough. Somehow, the writing makes all that both hilarious and charming.

It’s a genuinely tense, genuinely funny movie with something to say. No-one should see only one movie in a year, but if your bar is that low, this looks like the one you ought to see.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island; what was that camera?

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I spent a ridiculous amount of the running time of Kong: Skull Island wondering firstly what Brie Larson’s camera was, and then what kind of film she had loaded in it. Firstly, it’s some kind of Leica M4 with an attached meter in the hot shoe and an adapter on the viewfinder to correct the frame lines for - I think - a 35 mm lens. Which is all real stuff which people had to use in 1973 when we used celluloid film like barbarians and focused and exposed using our hands and brains like some kind of caveman. As to what film she was using; God only knows. Something which let her take pictures of the Aurora Skulliensis in the middle of the night without a tripod. That right there is almost more fantastical than a 150 foot high gorilla, because I’m like anyone else that way; I’ll believe any kind of nonsense when we’re talking about stuff I’ve never held in my hands, but once you get onto something I’ve tried and failed, I’ll be damned if I’ll believe that anyone else could ever have succeeded.

Kong is another one of those movies which wrote cheques with the trailer that it struggles to cash at full length. Kong fights helicopters! Looks great in the trailer, but it’s over in the movie in what feels like a heartbeat as Kong swats a dozen choppers out of the sky in the space of a few minutes. After that, it’s monsters slapping monsters, and humans getting in the way, and somehow it misses the sheer gut punch of Peter Jackon’s bloated but satisfying King Kong. I’m not quite sure why it doesn’t work as well. I suspect it’s partly that the original King Kong has a single straightforward plot which is all about the girl, where Kong:Skull Island is one of those things where a whole bunch of plots are put on the table, and then abandoned in favour of a literal “get to the choppah” story for a dwindling number of survivors.

Which is not to say it couldn’t have made all this sing. The cast is solid, with nothing as stupidly risky as putting Jack Black into a major role in a drama. John Goodman? Samuel L Jackson? Tom Hiddleston? These are guys who could probably get away with reading out the phone book. You don’t need MUCH script. You just needed a bit more than we get.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s a pretty good one. It’s just that the trailer made it look like it would somehow be even more. Just the notion of  King Kong crossed with  Apocalypse Now got me expecting some kind of magic that probably nothing could ever have delivered. When I merely got a solid adventure drama, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of disappointment. And the more I think about it, the more I think that the real disappointment is that Kong is interesting when he’s fighting against men and machines, and somehow less interesting when he’s wrestling with octopuses and creepy looking dinosaurs. Dozens of helicopters facing into catastrophe is an arresting image; CGI’d monsters fighting each other no longer has much novelty. So once Kong has Blackhawk Downed the whole air cav contingent, what seemed most fascinating about the movie was over and done with.

Tune in in two years time when Kong fights Godzilla. Or not, since both Godzilla and Kong have turned out to be things which were much more fun in my anticipation than they were on delivery.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Logan; only the moppets get out alive

Logan is a pretty good film if you judge it by such conventional metrics as gritty realism, decent acting and lack of Stan Lee cameos. It’s the first Marvel movie without a Stan Lee cameo, so what makes all non-Marvel movies a little better is finally available in a Marvel movie too. 

If you judge Logan by the simpler metric of “Was that fun?” things aren’t so good. It’s not a fun movie. The body count is off the charts. This may not be the first movie I’ve ever seen where the entire adult cast dies, but somehow it’s the first one where I’ve had the thought in those words. Come to think of it, that might be why it doesn’t have a Stan Lee cameo. Maybe they thought it would bum Stan Lee out too much to get killed in a movie.

Also missing, thank heavens; mid credit easter eggs, end credit easter eggs and all that palaver. This is, instead, an action movie which happens to have mutants instead of random palookas. It’s a Marvel movie only because they own the idea of mutants; for everything else, it’s a bleak modern thriller about men out of time getting one last shot at a redemption which is going to cost them everything.

Which does not make for chuckles. The weight of age is heavy on Professor Charles Xavier and Logan. Nothing is easy any more, and the world’s been turning to crap around them.

How well any of this works depends on your tolerance for kids in action movies. There’s one main kid, Laura, and a bunch of ancillary moppets who were lucky not to be in a Korean movie; they’d have been wiped out to the last baby in Korea. In America, they still pull those punches, which is honestly the only way any of those kids don’t wind up as paste instead of making a clean getaway. 

Laura spends most of the movie without any dialogue, and the moment when she starts talking doesn’t really make a lick of sense. On the way out of the movie, I overheard someone saying she was better than Chloe Moretz. I have nothing against Dafne Keen, but not even Chloe Moretz could be better than Chloe Moretz if she was given nothing better to do than grimace, gut people and scream all movie long. Dafne Keen does what she can with what she’s given, and could probably do a lot more, but Laura is no Hit Girl.

Meanwhile, the bad guys continue to have the weirdest staff. Richard E Grant’s Dr Evil and Fey Ginger With a Fake Hand second in command have an unlimited supply of tooled up nutbags to hunt our heroes, and what’s amazing isn’t just their inability to overwhelm the goodies through sheer weight of numbers, but the fact that they never falter. Logan and Laura are carving hideous lumps out of the mook squad, and at no point do the mooks stop and do the maths. They just keep attacking to the last man. Not one of them runs away, or just tries to fade into the treeline. I have no idea what Evil Inc uses for motivation, but if they could somehow match it with some kind of basic competence, they wouldn’t even need mutant super soldiers.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Great Wall; possibly not the dumbest wall related spend of 2017

Zhang Yimou has made, in his time, Hero, The House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower and Raise the Red Lantern. The Great Wall cost more than any of them, and it’s worse than any of them. Weirdly, in western terms it probably makes more sense than any of his great movies, since it has a plot which would fit on a beermat and could still be understood if you’d drunk all the beer in the pub. To this day I have no idea what Curse of the Golden Flower was about, and I have my doubts about whether I really understood House of Flying Daggers. It doesn’t really matter because in addition to making them look absolutely gorgeous, Yimou somehow found a way to make us care about the people running around in magnificent costumes whacking the hell out of each other.

Part of the problem is something which you might think at first glance would be a cool notion. What, I’m sure you’ve sometimes asked, if Han Solo was the hero of Star Wars? Han is cool. Luke is not cool. Wouldn’t Star Wars be more fun if the cool guy was the hero instead of the comic relief best buddy? Yeah, now that I’ve said it out loud, it’s starting to sound shaky isn’t it? But that’s pretty much the way they went with the script of The Great Wall. You’ve got a whole clutter of Chinese heroes, trained to within an inch of their lives, poised to fight off a plague that threatens not just their civilisation but the whole world. Wow enough, as Jurassic World would say. That’s a story. What more do you need?

How about a couple of scruffy European bandits who’ve come to China hoping to steal some gunpowder to make their fortunes back in Europe? What if we make them not just the viewpoint characters, but the heroes who reluctantly save the day? And how about if we make them morons? THAT was the way the script team went. And on it goes. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal, two perfectly decent actors who I pretty much like, fit into this movie in the way that three gallons of winter weight engine oil fit into salad dressing. I kept hoping that there was a Chinese cut which made them into complete buffoons, which would at least have made some kind of sense.

Meanwhile over in Yimou’s actual wheelhouse, the spectacle is magnificent. Much of it doesn’t make a button of sense, but it looks so good you can’t really quibble. Well maybe you could quibble at the idea that the drum corps work in full armour and all their drum signals sound exactly the same, but that doesn’t make the setup one bit less colourful. The Europeans are wrecking everything and getting in the way of the Chinese performers putting in any real character work, but the setpieces are exactly what you would have expected if you gave Zhang Yimou a tonne of money and told him to fight a vast horde of unstoppable monsters using anything cool he could think of. But as is so often the case, more is less. The scenes of the Crane Troop swan diving off the Great Wall on bungee cords to shish kebab monsters are breathtaking, but they pale against the bamboo forest fight in House of Flying Daggers which has the same balletic elegance, but a much better focus. 

The good news, in a weird way, is that it looks like The Great Wall will not make its money back in western markets, so with any luck Chinese cinema will go back to doing what it does well without trying to shoe horn in things that just make it all worse.

John Wick: Chapter 2; you wanted him back

Unaccountably the trailers left out the perfect John Wick line for a trailer “You wanted me back. I’m back.” It was right there in the script, and they left it there as an Easter egg for people like me marvelling at missed opportunities. Thanks, film-makers. You shouldn’t have.

The original John Wick was a weird work of art which I’ve never really wanted to watch again. The fights are amazing, and yet somehow I knew that they would be wearisome a second time around. The milieu was intriguing, but it had made its point so solidly that there was nothing left for me to unpick on another watch. It was just one of those movies which impressed me more than I expected simple violent popcorn to impress me, and which I knew I’d probably like a lot more if I just kept the cluttered jumbled memories you take out of the cinema.

Still, just because I didn’t need to watch the first one again didn’t mean that I didn’t want to see what a second helping might look like. The trailers were impressive and it did seem like a good mix of ultra-violence and bonkers parallel economy. The trailers are, in fact, incredibly misleading. Not about what they’re selling - the movie is exactly the mix you see in the trailer - but about the plot. Every line you hear from Winston (Ian McShane) in the trailer is massively out of context; when you get to the movie, half the time he isn’t even talking to the person the trailer leads you to think he’s talking to. I suppose it’s one way to avoid spoilers.

So how does it all hold up? Well, there’s gunfights. And fistfights. And pencil-fights. John Wick survives more lethal injuries than I can remember anyone surviving in a movie. And he kills so many people I went and found this; thank you George Hatzis; that’s 128 people killed by John Wick, including two killed with the same pencil.

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You know what; it gets kind of samey. It was fresh the first time, and it’s still completely competent the second time, but well before the body count was into the high double figures I was just wincing at the waste of human life instead of savouring the drive in the shoot out. The Red Circle night club shoot out in the first movie is so over the top it takes on a life of its own. Chapter Two; not so much.

What was new and fun was expanding the mythology. The weird shadow economy of assassins has Continental Hotels all over the place, all running off the huge chunky gold coin standard. They have stupid-ass markers which let you keep track of blood debts. There’s a vast 1950s switchboard area where tattooed women take phone calls to place murder contracts, type them up on IBM machines from before there were ever colour TVs, and then somehow text them out to every mobile phone in assassin land. There’s a king of the beggars, because of course there is. And all of that is somehow going to be pointed at John Wick in Chapter Three, because by the time the movie is over, he’s managed to get the whole mythology pissed off with him. Bad news for the mythology, because when John Wick announces that he’s going to kill everyone - well, look at the graphic, people. Chapter 3 is going to be like weaponised ebola.

But here’s my thing, for what little it’s worth. Everywhere John Wick goes, he’s recognised. Everywhere he MIGHT go, people are talking about him in hushed whispers. And yet, when he gets pressured into coming out of retirement, it’s because he’s the ghost who no-one ever sees. How the hell can you be the world’s most well-known mystery man? It’s like being the world’s tallest midget.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

I typed that title by mistake as The Lego Barman Movie and passed a moment wondering if that would have been a better film. Possibly. 

The trailers seemed so promising. The Sky TV advertising wasn’t all that annoying. And the original Lego Movie had been great fun, with Will Arnett’s Batman a big part of what made it fun. That take on Batman was great, because Batman was not just a jerk, but a jerk who had no idea how annoying he was. A whole movie? What could go wrong?

I learn nothing, really. After all, I thought a whole movie full of Minions was a can’t-miss proposition too. Turns out Will Arnett’s Batman is a seasoning; fine in something else, but you’re going to hate yourself if you eat a whole bag of it on its own. John started to fall asleep about twenty minutes in; I’ve got some lost time of my own. And it wasn’t like I feel I missed out on anything.

There’s a simple test I regularly apply to a movie; is this something I’d watch again with someone else? At the very least, is there anything happening which I’d find on YouTube and show people on a laptop? Hell if I can think of anything like that in The Lego Batman Movie.

Mostly, it’s the way the jokes aren’t there. The Lego Movie was funny, and used jokes cleverly to counterpoint the Lego stunts. The Lego Batman Movie seems to have figured it would be enough to keep making references to the other Batman movies. Really, it’s not. The other thing is that the writers seem to have thought that Batman being a jerk was a problem they needed to solve, instead of being the best thing about him. So there’s annoying plot in which Batman has to overcome his fears of loss and embrace teamwork in a new family. There’s nothing remotely funny about that, and it isn’t even all that interesting. No-one came to this movie for hugs and learning.

Would it have been so hard to make a comedy about Batman being a complete jerk as he frustrated the bad guys? Instead there’s a mega villain plot to destroy Gotham, and even that takes second place to the Joker’s need to feel special. So, one order of “the world will end” and not one, but two side orders of “it’s important to be in touch with your feelings”. I think I speak for all of us, including Batman, when I say that it’s important to be in touch with your feelings in private rather than figuring it all out in front of everyone you know and everyone else as well.

So, if you liked Will Arnett’s Batman in The Lego Movie, this week’s top tip is “watch that again”.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

I like Blake Crouch. Not to the extent of searching out his collected laundry lists, the way I do with K J Parker, but when I read his stuff I appreciate the fact that he takes a moment to write a decent sentence without being flashy about it, and makes a real effort to make his characters feel like people even if they do wind up feeling mostly like characters in a TV show.

Dark Matter is the first thing of his I’ve read since Wayward Pines, which I liked for the sheer speed with which it got to the point; three short books, a month of action, all done and dusted from high concept to collapse. Dark Matter is even quicker; everything in the high concept is set up and knocked down in the space of a single brisk novel with a bare minimum of characters and no-one staying on stage for longer than they need to.

The high concept here is “what if you could figure out a way to move between different version of the multiverse?” Problem a) figure out a semi-plausible way for it to happen. Problem b) figure out a plausible way for it to be an absolute nightmare for everyone. Problem c) figure out a way for it to get worse. Because “It gets worse” is a Crouch trademark. Dark Matter passes those tests with flying colours. The science is kind of plausible, in a narratively useful way; yes, you can make a device which will allow multiple universes to exist in the same place, but the only way to travel between them is to take a drug which will stop your mind from automatically collapsing them down to a single universe. Now you’ve got a limitation, which is what you always need with magic of any kind.

And the “It gets worse” is genius; if you make a new universe every time you make any kind of decision, but it’s possible to travel between all these universes, how long before you start tripping over yourself?

A lot of people would have stopped there; that’s plenty to be playing about with. But Crouch decided that it would be more interesting to make the book about regret and missed opportunities, and the way in which any kind of fulfilment will always be undercut by the vague feeling that there might have been something better if you’d just done something different. Proper grown up stuff, and a bit more than I expected to trip over in a thriller.

And yet, as I got to the end, I was struck by the way that the overall arc echoed Wayward Pines; the protagonist is snatched out of his world, into another world which isn’t quite what he thinks it is. When he figures out what’s really going on he winds up on the run, and before long he’s on the run from hordes who are out to get him, but are really just like him, and in the end the only option is to escape completely into another world using the same technology that took him out of his own world in the first place. Now I’m going to have to find another Blake Crouch book and see if he does that every time.

Split

In unexpected twist ending news, the unexpected twist ending of Split is that there isn’t an unexpected twist. James McAvoy is playing a nutbar who hurts people, people get hurt, the end. There’s no tricky metaplot in which it turns out that it’s everyone else who’s a nutbar, or anything else like that. Split does exactly what it says on the tin, likely a somewhat less complicated mid period Hitchcock movie. So if you’re going to see it, don’t spend your time second guessing the action. It’s about what it’s about.

There is, of course, a kind of tweak in the movie, inasmuch as it ends with a shout out to Unbreakable, otherwise known as the movie which gave us the big clue about M Night Shyamalan being a flash in the pan. The Sixth Sense remains a truly clever little movie with expert pacing and a genuinely unexpected turnaround. It was always going to be a tough act to follow, which hasn’t stopped Shyamalan from trying to, and hasn’t stopped people like from expecting him to even when he’s given up trying.

But what about Split? Well, it’s mostly about James McAvoy’s flashy performance as a guy with a personality for every occasion, by which I mean the WRONG personality for every occasion. It’s a pity that it’s going to get most of the attention, because Anya Taylor-Joy’s quiet performance as Casey, the final girl, is much more interesting. In some ways she’s the mirror of McAvoy’s mess of characters. Both have had horrible childhoods and gone looking for someplace safe, but Casey’s inturned self-harming character is much more realistic than James McAvoy’s caricature multiple personality schtick. McAvoy does a solid job of giving us a lot of different kinds of persona, but it’s like most cinematic depictions of damage in the way it’s too dramatic, too mannered, too intelligent to be truly convincing.

That said, the movie is properly plotted and moves well. Three girls snatched off the street and held by a loon in a basement could be relentlessly claustrophobic, but instead the action cuts away all the time to McAvoy’s psychiatrist, who knows that there’s something wrong but can’t bring herself to believe how far wrong it’s gone until it’s far too late to save herself or anyone else. And cleverly, McAvoy keeps pulling his punches, until you can almost bring yourself to believe that he’s not going to follow through on his plan to murder everyone. When he does follow through, it’s all the more shocking.

All in all, it’s good work. And if anyone else had done it, it would be the same kind of solid thriller that Don’t Breathe was. The pity of it is that Shyamalan’s created expectations that even he can’t fight off.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

XXX - The Return of Xander Cage

The baseline for walking back a character death is “Huh, they must have switched baskets.”.

Famously, when Vin Diesel had better things to do than come back for the sequel to the original XXX, the producers wrote him out with a dismissive line of dialogue before replacing him with Ice Cube. The handy thing about that approach is that’s a hell of a lot easier to walk back a line of dialogue than it is to walk back a properly budgeted death scene. So without even a wink at the audience, Vin Diesel is back as XXX as thought nothing has happened, and it’s time for more extreme sports stunts and complete idiocy in the cause of heaven knows what.

Well, I wanted something stupid.

I’d forgotten, however, how annoying Vin Diesel can be when there’s nothing around to pull him back down to earth. As the biggest name in the movie, he exudes a smugness which seems even bigger than his muscles. XXX, as a character, would be hilarious if there was someone around to call him on his bullshit, but instead the movie acts as though his nonsense is actually cool. Ridiculous fur coat? Unquestioned style statement. Risk your life and a dozen car crashes while destroying hundreds of dollars worth of sports equipment in order to steal a cable TV receiver instead of paying $80 to get a legit connection - well, in fairness, someone does call him on that bullshit, but then she has sex with him anyway, because the women can’t resist Xander Cage.

And it’s not as though the creative team didn’t have a sense of humour; in the throwaway opening, Samuel L Jackson is interviewing a new candidate for the XXX program, and a flashcard says that he "thought he was being interviewed for the Avengers” which is about two different kinds of funny. Shortly afterwards, Jackson gets murdered to bits, but don’t worry, he gets better. They knew jokes is what I’m trying to say; they just needed to run some of them past Vin. Who is smart, but probably not in a way that would have stopped them from making fun of him.

The chief villain of the piece is played by Toni Collette, who seems to have prepared for the role by renting The Long Kiss Goodnight and then imagining what blonde Charlie would have looked like if she’d gone into admin after the movie ended. Since Samuel L Jackson had a great time in that movie, I think I know who put her up to it.

That apart, it’s dumb stunts, objectified women and smart people slumming it. Donnie Yen not only appears to have parachuted in from a smarter movie but doesn’t appear to care if anyone else notices that he wishes he was still in that movie instead of this one. Ruby Rose is introduced to us sniping bow hunters on the Savannah so as to level the playing field between them and lions; it’s wonderfully wrong, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who has a comprehensive list of follow up targets for her to pop in a movie of her very own. Sadly, I can’t see Vin letting that happen, so in a couple of years she will be an even smaller part of the cast of bit players Vin swaggers around in XXX the return of the return of Xander Cage. I’ll probably wind up at it anyhow.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Live By Night

Ben Affleck is one of the more underrated performers of his generation, except in his own mind, where he continues to think that anything is possible. The ugly truth is that he’s good at playing assholes who are getting away with being assholes because they’re ridiculously good looking. Which is why Hollywoodland worked, and why he was able to make a useful fist of things in Gone Girl. When he directs and mysteriously decides to cast himself as the hero, things tend to go wrong. 

Live By Night is a pretty good example of that. It’s a great looking movie about a hoodlum who doesn’t want to be too much of a bad guy, and it cries out for a different star to the one that it’s got. In principle I can see where Affleck was coming from. He’s adapted Denis Lehane before, to very good effect. It’s just that he forgot that for Gone Baby Gone he stayed behind the camera and got the more talented Affleck to stand in front of it. Casey Affleck could have really made Live By Night take wings, because Casey can give you a sense of a man struggling to hold things together.

Ben, not so much. His character is a guy who just wants a quiet life lived outside the rules, but the longer he runs in the shadows, the more he falls away from whatever principles he thought he had, and finally he winds up walking away and losing just about everything. A better actor would somehow sell us on that; on the hollowness of the whole idea and the gradual realisation of how hollow it was. But Ben’s not quite up to that, and instead we get a good looking easy guy just trying to get by on charm and the hint of muscle behind it.

What surprised me after the fact was that the movie was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book; pretty much everything made it to the screen except for one kind of far-fetched arms-smuggling plot which would just have looked way too Hollywood. Some of the other sub-plots were thinned out a bit, but it’s all pretty much on the screen, and that’s a good piece of adaptation right there.

Stuff which didn’t land; it’s the Boston Irish trying to infiltrate the Italian mob, so there are Irish accents all over the place, and I do mean all over the place. So there’s Robert Glennister with his best Gloccamara brogue - honestly, it could have been worse. I know, because there was Sienna Miller’s Dorchester girl from County Cork who sounds like she trained by watching Mrs Brown’s Boys. Just to give us a baseline, there’s Brendan Gleeson with a real accent. 

Stuff which kind of did; there’s a fun car chase. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s thrilling in a stupid way. There’s a wonderful “Why am I talking to you?” moment which is simultaneously funny and yet another reminder of why we needed an actor who could show us just how dead inside Joe Coughlin has been all along.

Which brings me back to the real problem. Joe Coughlin’s not a nice guy. He tells himself he is, but he’s not anything like a nice guy. He’s arguably less horrible than his enemies, but that’s a pretty low bar. And Ben Affleck makes him seem uncomplicated and half way decent, just an amiable palooka trying to get a job done while everyone else makes it complicated and dangerous. If Ben had left room in front of the camera for someone complicated and dangerous, he could have made something really good.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Assassin's Creed; a bonfire of talent

Of all the participants in Assassin’s Creed, Michael Fassbender is the one with no-one to blame but himself. He was one of the producers of what has to be the most singular waste of talent I expect to see this year, and he went along with it anyway. It’s a surprising movie in many ways. On the one hand, the main voice cast are wasting time they could have spent on something decent; on the other hand the director apparently shot as much as 80% of the footage with practical effects and somehow found a way to make it look like fuzzy CGI. Only twenty five minutes into the thing I found myself nodding off during an action sequence; I kept waking up when they slowed it down for some more acting.

Which is the weird bit. There’s acting going on in the middle of this thing, because people like Fassbender and Cotillard and Brendan Gleeson can’t just switch off their talent at will. Early on, Fassbender gets executed in a US prison, and we get a wrenching sense of a man trying not to show how terrified he is of what’s coming next. It’s as though he’s read the rest of the script; it’s striking that Fassbender and Cotillard do a lot of their best work when they’re not given any dialogue.

For the rest, it’s a farrago of parkour assisted punchups with people repeatedly diving off bits of landscape and somehow not getting turned into paste at the end of the dive. Because the Assassins do all their work with hoods on, there’s not much sense of character in the combats, and indeed not much sense of what’s going on; early on I started tuning out the action scenes.

The action’s split between the modern day and flashbacks to Spain in 1492. Horrifyingly, the rough historical details for 1492 are more or less right, but they made up for that by using science which makes no sense at all for the modern era. In a leap which would have made Lysenko proud, modern day Templars have figured out how to retrieve the memories of long dead Assassins by interrogating the DNA of their descendants. Even if you buy that, there’s no point in the action where you see the 1492 character DO anything which might have given rise to descendants, but then again, this is bollocks to start with, so why would you want to unpick it at all? Partly because Fassbender said he wanted to do a film with some science in it, and now I really want the Kerry school system audited to see how the hell someone could get through any kind of education in Ireland in the 1990s and emerge thinking that it’s any kind of science to think that DNA could possibly remember experiences.

It doesn’t help that there’s no-one to root for. Assassins? Templars? I honestly found myself rooting for the Templars; at least they had an objective which made some kind of sense, though like most people fighting for peace, they were just making everything worse in a good cause. Then we went to Templar HQ in London and despite a centuries long war with a gang of merciless goons who go everywhere in hoods, Templar management mandate a robe and cowl dress code for their big meetings. I would have thought that point would have been covered at the very first “how do we prevent infiltration?” meeting ever held, but I’m a five year old child and as we all know, all evil consipracies are run by people who don’t know how to talk to five year old children.

Over on the other side, hunting Assassins in the modern world looks like the easiest thing ever; keep a couple of weaponised drones loitering over your big cities, and when you see a bunch of mopes in hoods standing on the highest building ledges they can find, you cap them from a distance. Assassins seem pretty stupid. Their signature weapon is a dagger which shoots out of a sheath on their wrists. If it then dropped into their hands so that they can manipulate it sensibly, that would be cool, but instead it just sits there sticking out the sheath, so that the only way to use it is by moving your whole forearm. This is probably why it doesn’t matter much that their initiation ritual is chopping their fingers off; between that and the tattoos, they don’t seem to understand that stealthy murderer should include “hard to identify”.

Yet stupidly I paid to see it, and there’s like a gazillion versions of the game, so I daresay there will be another one along in a couple of years, and more talent will be wasted.