Friday, 20 October 2017

The Snowman; when you're in a Hole, stop digging

The Snowman is a movie where the trailer doesn’t show you what to expect; not because the movie is fully of expertly managed suspense and misdirection, but because the trailer is full of stuff that didn’t make it into the final cut. I find it hard to fight the idea that the trailer is a hint that with a better cut and more running time, they could have somehow made a movie which worked.

I call that an idea, but maybe it’s just a fond hope. Maybe I just want to think that a uniformly solid [1] cast and a pretty good director had it in them to make a decent movie instead of the steaming pile of nonsense that I watched this week. Maybe nothing was going to save it. Certainly Michael Fassbender wasn’t going to. Resolutely playing Harry Hole as if he’d been told his first name was actually Arse, his only possible excuse is that he started shooting for The Snowman four days after he came off Assassin’s Creed and he didn’t realise that he was supposed to be interacting with real humans now.

There’s something meticulously tone deaf about the whole thing. Even though the Norwegian film board hurled money at the production and there’s another wonderful landscape shot every three minutes, anything which might sound Norwegian has been meticulously sanded off the script; the newspapers are in English, the advertising is in English, and Harry Hole’s name is pronounced just like it looks, instead of the way it would sound, which is more or less Hoolay. Because the name sounds ridiculous in English, and Hole’s the kind of guy no-one calls by his first name, you’re reminded every couple of minutes that this is a movie made by people who didn’t realise that they were being idiots.

It’s also a movie which hired Toby Jones and then gave him nothing to do. He’s on screen for less time than it takes to play a Beatles song, and contributes nothing to the plot, but because it’s Toby Jones, I spent the back half of the movie waiting for him to come back to work. Nope. Maybe he’s part of all the stuff which was in the trailer and wound up not being in the movie. Him and Adrian Dunbar and JK Simmons and so on and so forth.

And then there’s the plot. The Redbreast kind of knocked me back a bit on reading the rest of the Harry Hole books, so I don’t know if the book makes more sense than the film adaptation, but the only way it could make less would be if Jo Nesbo ordered it to be printed with every second page missing. Harry is the great genius detective, but he spends most of the movie detecting his floor. He’s supposed to be a tortured genius who drinks too much and neglects his friends and family but gets away with it because he’s just so all fired good at his job. But we never see him detect a single goddam thing. Weirdly, the whole "everyone forgiving him because he’s so damn cool” thing does seem almost plausible simply because it’s Michael Fassbender, and even sleepwalking Michael Fassbender is the nearest thing we’ve got to a new edition of 1990s Daniel Day Lewis. Then there’s the murderer, who doesn’t make any sense at all, at any level, starting with the bit about him turning out to be virtually the only character in the movie who hasn’t been teased as a possible killer, and progressing cheerily through the way that his murders don’t make sense even as crazy-person murders. And there’s Harry’s female sidekick, who gets herself killed doing something so amazingly stupid that she deserved it without there being any way in which the murder could logically have happened. Man, it’s a mess. Like I say, maybe there’s a whole bunch of out-takes somewhere which make sense out of it; more likely there’s a whole bunch of outtakes which even if you strung them together at random would make more sense.

The good-ish news is that no-one is likely to be taking another swing at this any time soon. But it’s sad to see that much talent getting such a poor return on their effort.

[1] OK, maybe not Val Kilmer, who now looks like Marv from Sin City wearing a Val Kilmer mask he found in a gas station and put on in the dark

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049: "There's not as much there as you think"

Last year Denis Villeneuve made Arrival, which was probably my favourite movie of the year; there were a couple I enjoyed more, but Arrival is the one which I’d feel happy recommending to absolutely anyone, without knowing what kind of movie they liked. So Villeneuve directing a sequel to Blade Runner carried me right past “why the hell would anyone want to do that?” and into “you know what? That might just work.” 

Well, maybe. Famously the original tanked at the box office and got recut about five times, so it’s probably best to stick a pin in my first impressions and see how the revisionism goes.

Still. It’s long. It’s slow. It’s not very focused  - well, everything’s IN focus, because Roger Deakins. It’s got Jared Leto in it (Ryan Gosling won big time here by not having to share any screen time with Leto, who seems to have been at full-on creepy form for the fortnight he spent on a soundstage in Hungary; sure, Ryan got punched in the mouth and relentlessly mocked by Harrison Ford, but at least he didn’t have to put up with Jared Leto). It’s great looking without having the sheer novel punch of the original. It’s full of important themes, but at the same time it’s kind of full of itself about how it’s messing with important themes. As Mackenzie David’s Mariette says “I've been inside you, and there's not as much there as you think.” 

It probably wouldn’t have been so long if it could have picked a plot and stuck with it. There’s a perfectly serviceable plot about Ryan Gosling’s officer K and his alienated relationship with a computer simulation. K’s a replicant, and he’s in love with something even more artificial than he is. That’s a perfectly good movie right there, and a good place to jump off if you want to spend a whole movie brooding on the nature of humanity and identity. Sadly, that’s just the B plot. The A plot is all about finding the mysterious child of Deckard and Rachel from the first movie, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the mysterious child (who would be at least half replicant depending on your position on the whole Deckard question) is going to be leader of a fresh replicant revolution. Oh, no, it’s the end of the world. Again.

Because Blade Runner 2049 has loads of the end of the world already. In the thirty years since we checked in with Rick Deckard, things have got worse. The world’s food supply has collapsed, people have been chucking nukes around, trees are so gone that wood is worth a fortune, and weather is available in original “continuous rain” and new “permanent dust storm” and “snow? How is it snowing?” The weird thing is that after a while it just gets in the way.

Watching Villeneuve and Deakins layer on more and more detail to their world, I realised how economical Blade Runner was. It’s wet, tight, urban and claustrophobic. There’s a consistent background which tells us enough about the world and then the characters just get on with it. The background doesn’t become the foreground, no matter how impressive and immersive it gets. In 2049 minutes go by just looking at stuff. And it’s the exact opposite of immersive. At one point, K trips over a bunch of beehives, full of bees. There isn’t a scrap of green, let alone any flowers, for as far as the eye can see. What are those bees living off? Villeneuve wanted a shot with a beehive, so that K could stick his hand it and get covered in bees. Whether it made any sense or not. But because the movie is sleepwalking, I had all the time I needed to figure out how dumb this was, while it was - happening doesn’t even feel like the right word.

So there it is. A good looking movie, which I went I wanting to like. It’s well acted, by a whole swathe of good performers. Gosling is excellent. K doesn’t make a button of sense, but Gosling somehow still makes him feel like a person. Ford is the same old grumpy Ford he’s been for the last ten or so movies. Robin Wright is great, as usual. Mackenzie Davis continues to be an overlooked treasure; all I can do is hope that with Halt and Catch Fire winding down she’ll start getting more chances to break hearts without saying a single word. And there are three more women in completely schematic roles who I’ve never seen before and hope I see again; Ana de Armas, Sylivia Hoeks and Carla Juri are playing walking plot points and they rise above the writing to give you people who feel real. How can all that be happening and somehow I’m not happy?

I don’t know. But I can’t help thinking that if this goes into the same cycle of re-cuts as the original, what comes out of it will have a lot less scenery and a lot more acting.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle; he was dead, but he got better

We hold some truths self evident; if you’ve got a mini-gun and it isn’t the first thing you use to solve your problem, you shouldn’t have brought it. This struck me in the first few minutes of The Golden Circle, when the baddie’s henchmen butt into a fist fight with three mini-guns. Nothing’s made much sense up to then - and nothing’s going to make much sense afterwards either - but that felt joltingly dumb. Just when the movie was trying to overwhelm me with sensation, it was jolting me out of the moment.

Kingsman was a vaguely enjoyable mess with all sorts of good performances thrown almost randomly into a script which couldn’t decide if it was satirising the class system or glorifying it. I remember saying that Colin Firth was great and that I’d been hoping that the entire Kingsman organisation would be wiped out to make room for social workers.

On that front I have great news. The Kingsman organisation is wiped out to the last man, pretty much, and at no extra charge, Colin Firth is back from the dead. On the one hand, Colin Firth was the single best thing in the first movie even though he wasn’t even trying and had exactly one tone the whole way through. On the other hand, he’s still the single best thing in the second movie, but this time he’s actually got something worth his time. There’s a whole, legitimately good, movie they could have made about Colin Firth’s character coming back from the dead, and Colin gives us a pretty good taster for it. I have to say that it would be scientific bullshit, because amnesia after head trauma doesn’t work the way movies would like it to, but with Firth selling the bullshit, it would have been something to see. As it is, we get a few minutes of real pathos as we see him knocked back to the happier person he could have been if he’d never joined the Kingsmen, and it starts to sink in that the only way forward for the plot is for this gentle, slightly bewildered person to be swept aside. As if that weren’t enough, he’s hallucinating butterflies all the time, and it’s genuinely beautiful and immersive in a way that most of the stunts just aren’t.

So, lots of good Firth in there, and a nagging sense that if they’d bothered, they could have made a good movie. Then you look at the rest of the cast; five Oscar winners in total, and poor old Taron Egerton gamely hanging on in there trying to be a real boy while everyone else coasts. Halle Berry is there and I swear she worked harder when she was playing Catwoman. Channing Tatum shows up for just long enough to register and then gets put in a fridge before he gets in a single action scene. Michael Gambon is there, and on and on it goes. There’s a lot of great actors on screen and yet Elton John, of all people, is given more to do than most of the big names.

And man, the tone is all over the place. On the one hand, Eggsy’s actually making a go of a relationship with the Swedish princess who looked like random Bond-babery at the end of the first movie. On the other hand, I stopped counting how many different callbacks they had for the anal sex joke from the first movie (including Elton’s cheery offer to give Colin Firth “a back-stage pass” if he saves the world). It was like they had Liam Neeson’s cop from The Lego Movie writing the script and they just kept everything from both sides of the head. Half the time they’re being sweet and decent and the other half they’re being horrible, and none of it makes any logical sense.

Which leads me, as though by magic, to the plot. Which is stupider than the plot in the first movie; briefly, so that it doesn’t hurt too much, Julianne Moore’s Poppy the drug smuggler has somehow taken over the whole world’s illegal drug supply, and has contaminated it with a completely ridiculous lethal virus so that she can hold the world to ransom. She’ll hand over the antidote if the US President makes drugs legal. The President, bless him, thinks this is the best deal ever; all he has to do is play along until every drug user in the world is dead from the virus and hey presto, the war on drugs is over. Yes, the US President is horrible. I don’t know where anyone could have come with an idea like that.

So many logistical problems. The US is somehow able to quarantine all the infected in football stadiums full of individual cages stacked hundreds of feet in the air. Where were they keeping all these cages up until then? How has society not completely collapsed with that many people dying on their feet out of nowhere? How is TV even working if all the drug addicts are dying in cages?

And then there’s Poppy’s business, which she’s running out of a hideous cross between American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now, except with robots. It’s never clear how Poppy has all these robots or how she can get deliveries that far into the jungle, but long before you start worrying about that, there’s the fun of wondering how she keeps her help and isn’t in jail. The first henchman we meet gets stuck in a meat mincer - by the second henchman we meet - after about four minutes. Bonus, it’s a meat mincer which can somehow separate all his clothes along the way so that the meat which comes out - and gets turned into a burger that henchman two is forced to eat - doesn’t have strings of blue fabric running all the way through it. This is the kind of thing which really gets in the way of employee retention. Then there’s the employee makeover plan, where everyone gets their fingerprints lasered off and their teeth ground smooth to make them harder to identify before being given a solid gold tattoo which makes it trivial to identify them as member of the Golden Circle. Poppy’s notions on management would see her in a meat mincer some time during the second week, and not head first either.

Then there’s the virus, with its improbably instant cure being flown in by drones at the drop of a hat, leaving me wondering how the drones would know where the infected were. Just too many problems.

Amazingly, the version is theatres is eighty minutes shorter than the initial cut, which boggles my mind. Is it eighty extra minutes of Colin Firth being noble and Eggsy being thick but sweet, or is it eighty minutes of queasy sex jokes and nihilism? Or forty minutes of each? Or cut scenes which explain away all the logistics problems? With anyone else, you could at least guess, but with this team, who knows?

Monday, 25 September 2017

Victoria and Abdul; some of this really happened

About a week after I saw Victoria and Abdul I was asked what it was like and said “No battles, and I don’t think that ANY of the uniforms were authentic.” Which does as a review for a certain kind of audience, but the movie isn’t really aimed at wargamers.

I’m not sure who it is aimed at, other than people who like Judy Dench in Mrs Brown and wanted a second bite at the cherry. Cue this, which is stuffed full of good actors giving good performances without me being able to arrive at any clue about what they were trying to achieve. Make Victoria’s court look like a shower of creeps? Definitely managed that. Call the Raj into question? Are we still in doubt about that? Make Victoria look like someone who didn’t realise what was happening in the Raj? Yes, that comes across, but it’s slightly hard to believe that Victoria was quite that clueless about the biggest part of the Empire. 

Mostly, though, it’s a confusing movie, because nothing changes and no-one gets any older, so that the whole Abdul deal looks like it unfolded over the course of a couple of years in Victoria’s dotage. In reality, Abdul came over for Victoria’s golden jubilee, and was part of the Royal Household for fourteen years. Ali Fazal doesn’t age a day from one end of the movie to the other, which given how dreamy he looks straight out of the box is a completely understandable decision, but it makes the movie more or less silly as a story. It also passes up the opportunity to tell the real story, which seems to have boiled down to a wily Indian self-promoter doggedly outlasting the pettiness of a whole building full of equally wily English self-promoters. Instead Abdul Karim is shown as a wide-eyed innocent charming the Queen while being almost oblivious of the malice of the English Court. It makes for a simple story of evil aristos stomping lovable exotics, but it’s not what happened and it’s not even the story which today’s audience really needs to hear.

As it stands, Victoria and Abdul is a condescending fantasy about how the Raj was really the best thing which could have happened to the child-like Indians; sure, the movie’s full of petty English villains (none more villain-y than Eddie Izzard’s Bertie, the royal it’s been OK to hate through most of my adult life), but the order of things is never questioned. There’s nothing wrong with having aristos running things, just that these ones weren’t very nice. Maybe it’s just a cheering story for the times we live in, where much of England is harking back to the empire and most of it is in a permanent state of panic about dusky islamists showing up and disrupting things. Certainly Victoria and Abdul isn’t going to put any of that audience off their kedgeree.

What’s annoying is that there’s a stealth version of the right movie hidden in Adeel Akhtar’s Mohammed, Abdul’s doomed comedy sidekick. England literally kills him, and along the way he treats us to a bitter commentary on the Raj and everything wrong with it before succumbing off screen to Hollywood coughing-up-blood disease. We should have had a lot more of Adeel Akhtar, not least because he’s a very good actor.

Logan Lucky; Soderbergh is back, baby

Logan Lucky is one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable movies I’ve seen all year. Soderbergh went to unheard of lengths to keep all the control of the movie to himself, selling off just about every right other than the profit from cinema screenings so as to keep the final cut. That’s how far you to have to go now to make a movie that looks just like the kind of movie they don’t make any more, a simple caper movie of the sort that got churned out every week when I was a kid.

Of course, it was never that easy to make a good caper movie. Most of them have too much caper and not enough to care about. Logan Lucky works because Soderbergh got himself a talented cast. Channing Tatum once again took me by surprise with Logan himself, a guy who looks far too dumb to plan anything much beyond Netflix and Chill, but turns out to be a patient canny plotter who faithfully follows every step of his ten step plan. And unlike Chris Pine’s bank robber from Hell and High Water, Logan’s likeable all the way through and has a plan where no-one really loses, except for the diffuse cloud of people whose insurance premiums went up a little after the Motor Speedway claimed back their losses.

It’s a cheerfully ramshackle plot, and Logan’s sad sack brother painstakingly explains how unlucky the entire Logan family has been for generations, so most half-awake viewers will sit there waiting for everything to go calamitously wrong. The first hint that it won’t go that way is that the plan is never really explained. The first law of caper is that if you hear the plan, it will fail. If you don’t hear the plan, it will probably go fine. That’s just good story telling, which is about trying to surprise the viewer. If you get told the plan, there’s no surprise when things unfold according to it. 

Once things do unfold, it’s all very satisfying. All kinds of apparent mis-steps turn out to have been very clever misdirection. And nothing goes to waste; every single little nagging worry is sorted out before the credits.

Except for one. In a shout out to the ending of Ocean’s 11, Hilary Swank’s FBI agent shows up at the last moment, just as everyone thinks they’ve got away with it. I really hope there isn’t going to be some kind of Ocean’s 12 to wreck all the good will from this one.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Wind River: Men are the worst

Wind River is a movie I went to on the strength of the writer. It was Taylor Sheridan’s first chance to direct one of his own scripts, and I’d been impressed by both Sicario and Hell or High Water. The buzz I was seeing in reviews was that Sheridan wasn’t ready to direct, but what I took away was that he’s more or less OK at that, but that I’m getting tired of his writing. Specifically, I’m getting tired of his men.

Lets recap briefly. Sicario is a pretty good movie about the way that men are toxic and use violence to make things worse while pushing women off to the margins. Hell or High Water is a pretty need modern western about how bank robbers are still jerks no matter how much you think banks are the worst, and yep, it runs on the engine that men are toxic and violent.

Which is why Wind River really started to hack me off after a while, despite a solid cast. Jeremy Renner is almost scarily good at playing toxic men, but in Wind River he’s practically set up as the only person in the movie who’s got his act together. He really doesn’t, but the pacing and the staging would make a lot of people think, sure it’s fine to be toxic as long as you’re reflective and in touch with your emotions. The person I found truly admirable was Gil Birmingham’s world weary reservation police chief, whose “This thing is practically solving itself.” was true to both his character and the agressive simple-mindedness of the plot. There’s no complex murder mystery here; the obvious suspects are the bad guys, and the only mystery is how the hell they thought that they were going to get away with it.

The reality is that they had one pretty good reason to think they were going to get away with it; they were white guys on an Indian reservation and they killed an Indian. Reservations don’t have the resources to police themselves properly, and the US government rules on what the tribal police can and can’t investigate when outsiders come onto the reservation mean that there’s practical impunity for outsiders in the empty spaces Indians have been herded into. All this ugliness is hinted at in the script and the playing, but I don’t know that hinting is enough. 

Two other things bothered me even more. One is that once again Sheridan’s given us a plot in which a woman is trying to do her best to make the right thing happen, and gets sidelined by men. Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent is brave and committed, but in the end she’s overwhelmed by events and has to be rescued by a manly man. Up until then, she was a fascinating mess in some ways. I thought she was an idiot to go into an unknown building with a violent clown in it who’d just half-blinded her with pepper spray so that she couldn’t even see where she was going, but I admired her commitment to putting him down, particularly the bit about how you keep shooting at the hostile until you can’t hear any shots coming back. But all her efforts come to nothing; at the climax of the movie, she tries to keep the peace and it still turns into a massacre.

Which leads into a puzzle; by the time Jeremy Renner’s schwacked the last of the bad guys, there’s no-one left alive to explain what the hell happened, but the whole cast carries on as though they’ve seen the flashback the audience gets. That’s just lazy. I think we’re supposed to understand that Jeremy Renner, magical hunter, has figured it all out by reading tracks and everyone just takes his word for it.

Which leads me to the thing which bothered me most. Sheridan’s exercised, and rightly, by the way that Native Americans are being treated right now in the USA. Which makes it grate that the hero of the hour is Jeremy Renner’s white guy who married into the tribe. And is practically a magical Indian with his tracking skills and stoicism and discount Patrick Swayze aphorisms. Men are terrible. White men are particularly terrible. They treat women and minorities like dirt. Fine. That’s all true. But if it really bothers you, then stop treating them like Homer Simpson treats beer. You can’t call them the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Not if you want the victims to believe they can stand up and face them down.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

American Made: something we haven't seen before

I find Tom Cruise confusing, since he does his most interesting work when he plays assholes, but I don’t know if he thinks he’s acting in those moments. And it’s not like he picks movies specifically so that he can be an asshole in them, with the possible exception of the deliberate cartoon in Tropic Thunder which I’ve always assumed was some kind of in-joke payback against a producer he knew and hated. For all I know, Tom thought he was the hero in Edge of Tomorrow, when by far his best contribution to the movie was being a weasel.

Something similar is in play in American Made, a movie where Tom Cruise plays a superficially charming man who flies guns and drugs for the CIA, the contras and the Medellin cartel. This is not a job where anyone with even a sketchy understanding of right and wrong could possibly think he’s the hero, yet the whole thing’s set up to make Barry Seal a breezy, fun guy to be with, just trying to scrape by as he makes millions ferrying death in all directions for people who’ve killed more people than ebola.

At some level, you know that this is nonsense, even before you take some time after the movie to read up on the real Barry Seal, who seems to have been a much bigger jerk than the movie version. For example, he didn’t walk off the job with TWA because he was bored, but because they fired him after he got arrested on the edges of a conspiracy to smuggle explosives to anti-Castro Cubans. Sure, everyone’s got a story to tell in their own minds about how they’re nice guys really, and if they weren’t doing it someone else would be, but that only works for them, because they need it to work for them if they’re going to be able to live with themselves. It’s not going to work for anyone watching from the outside.

And a truthful movie could have been made about that contradiction, with Cruise being a perfectly credible weasel; he can do weasels. But Cruise’s Seal is a likeable schmuck. He muddles through almost everything except flying. Half the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the rest of the time he does it anyway and gets it wrong. And it’s fun; he’s an engaging enough person, and it rings true that he grins and blusters his way out of scrape after scrape.

Right up until he doesn’t. There’s a moment about half way through the movie when you see something which we’ve never seen in a Cruise movie before; a missing tooth. That perfect, not-quite-symmetrical, grin gets a gap put into it. For ten minutes, there’s a little black space there as Cruise struggles with everything falling apart; then everything magically starts coming back together again for him, and somewhere off screen he gets to the dentist, and it’s back to shucking and jiving for another hour and a bit, and then the chickens REALLY come home to roost.

And Tom gets shot. Dead. This is not quite as novel as his teeth not being absolutely perfect, but usually Tom can walk off being shot dead. I’ve lost count of his moments of resurrection at this stage. This time, Tom stays resolutely dead. Which pretty much comes out of nowhere. We never see the cartel or the contras at their business; all the deaths [1] have been airbrushed out of the wacky action, making it easy for us to pretend that this is all harmless. Then boom. 

At the time my main thought was “Well, that was mood whiplash.” Happy clappy fun movie about drug smuggling, and then downer ending as our narrator gets killed. Did not see that coming. But there’s a weirder angle to it when I brood on it a bit. We’re given just one death that really matters, and it’s the star. And it’s carefully choreographed to be a martyrdom, almost an act of nobility. Tom knows he’s a marked man and that he could run, but if he did, the cartel would go after his family. So he sends them off, far away, and stakes himself out there to take the consequences of his life of crime. 

Which leaves me retrospectively annoyed with the whole exercise. We’re rooting for, and then supposed to be sorry for, a guy who was smart enough to know that every load he carried was going to kill dozens of people. The US government is set up to look sleazy and inept, and all the deadly consequences of the idiocy are airbrushed out of the narrative so as not to complicate our reaction to that one numbing kill at the end. It’s a perfect modern American movie that way.

And one small story telling quibble; for no particularly good reason, they hire Jesse Plemmons to play a small town sheriff who completely misses the whole conspiracy which has practically engulfed his county. And then when every federal agency EVAR shows up to arrest Barry Seal, the director missed the chance either to include the sheriff as one more law man screaming “nobody move” in all directions, or cut away to him sitting in his office wondering why all the police are suddenly in town. I hope there’s a deleted scene of that somewhere.

 

[1] OK, all but one. The cartel whack Seal’s worthless brother in law with a carbomb, but it’s been set up in such a way that you pretty much wish they’d done it twice.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Atomic Blonde: John Chick

As I may have said earlier, I was really hoping to like Atomic Blonde. The trailer is all highlights and cool fights, and Charlize Theron was the motor that made the last Mad Max movie hum. Surely, I said to myself, the woman behind Furiosa could carry a spy movie over the line?

Not so much, which is all the weirder when I read that she spent the last five years kicking people so that someone would make an adaptation of a comic book she liked. Somewhere along the line did she not think about how to make it a movie about people rather than just a daisy chain of stunts? or at least try to make sure that she hadn’t green-lit for director half the mind behind John Wick?

Well, who’s to know. It went the way it went, which is stunt heavy. There are a lot of fight scenes, and at one level they’re impressive as hell. Lorraine Broughton is just whup-ass in heels, a non-stop beat-em-up machine who can take a kicking and stand up afterwards to hand out something even worse. And the movie tries to put a sense of consequence into it by piling on the bruises and damage she builds up as the fights keep going. I can see the plan, but if you want the audience to care what happens to a character, make her a character, don’t give her an ever growing collection of contusions. 

The problem for the movie in trying to make Lorraine a character is that the plot requires her to be a cipher. It’s Berlin in 1989. Everyone’s motivation is suspect, no-one is what they seem, anybody can be a double agent and not even know it. So we can’t know what Lorraine is really thinking. Nothing we see is the real person - or at least we can never be sure that anything we’re seeing is the real person. This is a perfectly good angle for a narrative, but it’s a real problem when the movie badly needs us to care about someone. Most dumb movies bridge the gap by making someone funny, whether it’s a wisecracking hero or a glib villain (or both - Die Hard runs on that engine). Atomic Blonde doesn’t exactly think that wisecracks are beneath it, but it’s not well enough written to make them funny.

Which all boils down to something which doesn’t quite work. Even something technically impressive somehow fails to register; Lorraine gets into a running fight up and down an apartment building which is edited to look like a continuous take, but which somehow hangs together so badly that I couldn’t even get caught up in the frenzy of the action. This, I remind you, is half the team that made John Wick, which nailed the whole diea of extended action scenes so well I forgot to breathe in places. Something did not go the way everyone had a right to expect that it would.

Which is a shame. There’s a perfectly good movie to be made about the world of spying in late 80s Berlin. More than one got made at the time, if it comes to that. And a good double agent movie can really sing. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy worked just fine as more than just a nostalgia piece. And things like John Wick have shown that you can make a perfectly good movie out of a series of setpiece fights; choreography for its own sake can work. And Atomic Blonde looks good all the way through. Charlize looks great, and Berlin looks just right from moment to moment, even if they probably did most of the East Berlin backstreets with bits of Budapest. 

And on the subject of setpiece fights, the running conceit in Atomic Blonde is that Lorraine doesn’t need a gun; she improvises from whatever she can find; a bunch of keys, a hosepipe, pots and pans … Even when she actually gets her hand on a gun, it’s dismantled and she winds up having to use it as a club. That’s a great idea. The late great Adam Hall ran a twenty book series off the back of it, starting with The Berlin Memorandum (as chance would have it). Quiller was a great creation, and Adam Hall would have enjoyed the fights in Atomic Blonde for their brutal simplicity. Quite why they didn’t work in practice, I still don’t know.

But I think, in the end, that it fails because it couldn’t give the characters room to act. Charlize couldn’t. James McAvoy, who completely can act, was directed to chew every carpet he could find. Sophia Boutella, who has died in every movie I’ve seen her in at least finally gets some lines, though not enough to let me figure out if she can really act, or just looks so exotic that it doesn’t matter if she can. The one person who seemed to me to hit the proper tone was John Goodman, who only has a few minutes of screen time, but brings exactly the feeling of worldweary ambiguity everyone else should have had.

Mind you, there’s always an avoidable niggle. Early on, Lorraine is briefed on how a colleague got whacked in Berlin. Shot in the head, she’s told. And they dug a 7.62 mm bullet out of the body they dragged out of the River Spree. Clunk the slide projector to a picture of a cartridge case. The thing which would have been left behind on the road where he was shot before his body was dropped from a great height into a river. Yeah.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Valerian. And the City of a Thousand Planets. And so on.

If this is the movie which winds up bankrupting Luc Besson, and it could well be, it will be the money version of dying doing something you loved. It’s as comprehensively and insanely a Besson movie as it possibly could be, without being a movie as good as Besson is capable of making on a good day. It looks amazing, and it treats the whole concept of making sense as an afterthought. And yet ...

Let’s start with Cara Delavingne, who’s been singled out for wrecking things by not being able to act (one review suggested that she can, but that Besson told her to play her character as a malfunctioning robot). I don’t know if she can act, but her air of unfazed indifference to the lunacy going on around her made perfect sense to me. I found her a lot easier to buy than Dane DeHaan, who appears to have prepared for his part by getting Eddie Redmayne drunk and asking him how he managed Jupiter Ascending. Allegedly DeHaan can act, so either he decided not to, or flat out couldn’t see how to do it when everything around him was green screen and tennis balls, or he read the script and figured that no amount of acting was going to get this over the line into a believable performance.

I am forced to conclude that the problem was the script. Since just about everything in the movie is CGI stacked on top of more CGI, they were going to have fake everything no matter what they did. And so they didn’t have to make the usual compromises with the writing where the director realises that he can’t get the picture in his head onto film. This is the 21st century and Besson is throwing all the money in the world at his personal vision. It looks the way he wanted it to look, and it’s the story he wanted to tell. That’s the problem. The story doesn’t really hang together. For all I know it’s a completely faithful adaptation of the underlying comic book text, and Besson’s only mistake was loving the source material too much.

But whatever the reason, Valerian is a mess. It’s a great-looking mess, but it’s a mess all the same. The puzzle is that The Fifth Element was also a mess, and yet somehow it worked. There’s a thesis to be written on that. I suspect that in part it was that The Fifth Element was made at a time when CGI wouldn’t quite let you do whatever you wanted, so that Besson had to keep pausing and reworking the script so that it could somehow be delivered with practical effects, whereas Valerian was made at a time where movies have become almost like novels or comic books, in that there’s no real difference in the cost of imagination no matter how far fetched the imagination becomes. Once upon a time a cast of thousands required a cast of actual thousands, and a single line in a novel or picture in a comic book could become a logistical nightmare to get on screen. Now there’s not much of a cost difference between a fake background of a distant forest and a fake background of a million soldiers, so why not have the soldiers?

Or it could have been the actors. Usually it’s a good thing that Clive Owen is not Gary Oldman, but there are moments when Oldman’s lunacy is required, especially when you’re Luc Besson and you need a villain who can declaim at the top of his voice while simultaenously chewing all the carpets in the universe. Owen can’t pull that off. And DeHaan can’t manage to be Bruce Willis, much as Cara Delavingne doesn’t have whatever it is that Milla has. And what’s that off to the side? Has yet another effects heavy lunatic movie found a way to waste Elizbeth Debicki? Yup. Bonus points for hiding her so much that I didn’t realise she was there until the credits.

The HItman's Bodyguard; Unaccountably, not a Luc Besson movie

I will take a punt on almost anything which either Ryan Reynolds or Samuel L Jackson is in, so I was never going to skip a movie with both of them, even where I suspected that they both knew all they had to do was show up and coast along on their charm. As it worked out, I had my expectations dialled to the correct setting; Reynolds and Jackson both did their thing, putting about the same amount of effort into it that Dean Martin used to put into his movies, and it’s a perfectly unremarkable thriller which would probably have been totally dreadful without the star power it got.

What’s almost surprising about it is that it’s not a EuropaCorp movie, since everything about it from its mismatched buddies on a chase through Europe, through its casual xenophobia, its blithe indifference to geopolitics, its offbrand locations and even the typeface for the opening credits screamed Luc Besson passing a buddy another of his patented barmats. Of course EuropaCorps would never have sprung for both Reynolds and Jackson. Money is tight and why use two stars when you can probably get away with just one?

Well, you have to use two stars, kind of, if you’re doing a bad remake of Midnight Run. Which as every reviewer has pointed out, is pretty much what the The Hitman’s Bodyguard boils down to. Of course, the fun in Midnight Run was watching Charles Grodin, a non-star, effortlessly upstage de Niro. The fun isn’t the action; I’ve watched Midnight Run a half a dozen times and I couldn’t tell you what happens in the action scenes, or even be confident that there are any action scenes. The fun’s the interaction scenes. Which ought to be great news if you’re trying to make a movie on the cheap, since two guys arguing in a car is very inexpensive. No-one got that memo, and instead The Hitman’s Bodyguard has loads of action scenes. To give you an idea of how they work in practice, I spent most of them wondering whether they were shot in the correct city, or on the backstreets of someplace cheap like Bulgaria. If I’ve got time to think “I’ve been in the Hague, and it looks nothing like this.” the action scene is not exciting enough to be worth the money it cost.

So it’s fun, kinda. It passes the time. I didn’t expect much from it, and I got about what I expected. Next week I’ll go and see Atomic Blonde and if it doesn’t work like the trailer, I’ll be completely disappointed, even if it winds up being better than The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Because life isn’t fair.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick is so straightforwardly good that it’s hard for the snark-o-matic which we specialise in to get any real traction. It had me with the trailer, where Ray Romano’s character says “Yeah, I thought I could just start talking and something smart would come out.” This should be a footnote to just about every conversation I’ve ever had. It all just works. Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t have to act, since he’s playing himself, and everyone else is propping him up, since they actually can act. Zoe Kazan is adorable without being ridiculous or a manic pixie dream girl. And so on. It’s that rare movie which I’ve seen twice and got something different from on each showing. The first time, I was just laughing, but the second time around, whether it was me or the movie, I was picking up on a lot more of the emotion on display.

There are great funny moments, including the world’s most awkward conversation about 9/11, but if it was just a collection of funny lines, it wouldn’t be much of a movie. It works because you want the people to be happy. The closing scene just nails it. Maybe it’s a little bit too Hollywood after what’s gone before, but it still works for me. 

The one question in my mind is whether it’s a better movie if you don’t know what’s going to happen. It would take a mighty effort not to know, since it’s based on a true story and the trailer leads with the big twist; the only way they could be more upfront about Emily going into a coma would be if they used Morrissey as backing music. Thing is, knowing that Emily is going into a coma, I spent the whole front half of the movie wondering if this was going to be the moment, or this, or this … When was the coma shoe going to drop? It was almost a relief when it did. Whereas if I’d somehow managed to go in blind, would the coma have been a dreadful shock? Right up until then there’s no real foreshadowing, and it just looks like a simple minded romantic comedy. Then, wham, coma. 

In reality I don’t know how you could make it as big a shock for the audience as it must have been for the people it actually happened to. You can make it matter - and the movie does - but I don’t think you could can make it shocking. It’s such an extraordinary story and we live now in such an arbitrarily connected world that true surprise is effectively impossible in mass entertainment. We just have to wait for it to creep up and hit us in real life, which isn’t scripted.

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 excessively 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 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 Stevens 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.