Sunday, 29 January 2017

Live By Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Assassin's Creed; a bonfire of talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 January 2017


There are two different ways to look at Passengers. One way is to think of it is as an SF movie which doesn’t make any sense, and the other is to look at it as a deeply creepy movie about gender politics, Stockholm syndrome and magical negroes. I am buoyed by vaunting ambition and the knowledge that no-one but Russian bots is actually reading any of this, so I am going to try to cover both bases.

Firstly, deep creepiness, because all the real reviewers have had a field day, and I can cover this sketchily. Look at the trailers for this movie, and you get the impression that it’s all about two loveable charming actors stuck together in a bad situation and overcoming terrible peril with the power of love. Yeah. That’s false advertising. What actually happens is that Chris Pratt’s character gets woken up early on a 120 year suspended animation voyage from A to B, and looking down the barrel of 90 years with no-one to talk to than a creepy robot barman who looks just like a slightly more human version of Tony Blair, he decides to wake someone else up to share the same hell with him. 

Let’s not get mixed up about what this means. Pratt knows he can’t get go back into hibernation, and neither can anyone else who might wake up. The ship is full of people with plans to land on another plan and spend the rest of their lives there, surrounded by a community. Pratt knows he’s going to die on that ship, never seeing the destination. Anyone he wakes up is facing the same fate, with just him for company. He’s not exactly killing another person, but he’s taking from them the life they wanted to live, with no possibility of reprieve, just so that he can have some company. That’s a horrible thing to do, no matter how much you might want to do it. Hiring Chris Pratt to play the man who has that choice, and makes it, blurs the edges too much. Pratt can’t help being loveable. I spent a big chunk of the movie thinking about how much more relateably awful the whole thing might have been if it had been someone like Jake Gyllenhall in the same role. 

Once Jennifer Lawrence wakes up to the reality of what’s happened, we get some of the sense of what’s happened; for an all too short period in the middle of the movie, her rage and anguish begin to express what’s horribly wrong in the middle of all this. Watching her in those moments, it was easy to imagine how a much better movie could have come out of throwing the same script at a pair of actors who were as equally matched for talent as they are for charm. Instead, the rage becomes a tantrum which is then overwhelmed by emergency drama and a reconciliation under fire which we’re expected to believe will turn into a lifelong love story instead of burning out once the adrenalin stops whistling round them.

It’s not just that it’s creepy bollocks, it’s that it’s the kind of creepy bollocks that gives men bad ideas. Manipulate women, lie to them, use them, and then use a mixture of charm and terror to get them to melt back into your arms. Too many kinds of wrong.

And I’ve just enough space for magical negroes; poor old Lawrence Fishburne also wakes up and gets to be alive for exactly long enough to explain that Chris Pratt was just doing what a man has to do, explain how the complicated techy things work, and bequeath a magical bracelet which will open all the doors they need to open to save themselves. Then, having done enough to save the white folks, he dies. Man, there’s a lot to hate about the politics of this movie. Let’s switch to the SF.

Firstly, I have to say that it’s a continuing marvel that they had $12 million to pay Chris Pratt (and $20 million for JLaw, so at least we’ve finally made a start on beating the pay gap) and untold millions to show us space stuff, and somehow not enough money to give Chris a beard that looked like it actually grew out of a human face. How hard can a convincing beard be? It’s literally the only effect in the movie which isn’t first rate. Everything else looks great. It’s scientific nonsense, but it looks great. Just the beard.

I have to feel sorry for the 4998 colonists and 257 surviving crew of the Avalon when it reaches it destination. They’ve packed food for 5258 people for four months as they coast in to the destination and train everyone in; Chris and Jen will eat about 10% of that as they eke out their lives waiting to die in space, so everyone’s on short rations when they get to Homestead II. Mind you, I had to work out the numbers later, so I spent a big chunk of the movie thinking it would be much worse than that. Anyhow, even if they like what Chris and Jen have done with the place, they’re still going to be cursing them for putting them on a low calorie diet.

Avalon is doing 50% of light speed, but the stars are still white all around them instead of being blue shifted to the front and red shifted behind them. Avalon also has a shield to the front, but nothing to the sides, as though space debris is like windshield bugs and could never possibly come at it from any other angle than straight ahead. It’s constantly rotating, and it’s implied that this is to generate gravity, but from time to time the gravity just goes away instantly without the rotation stopping.

The Homestead Corporation’s business model makes no sense at all. It takes 120 years for the Avalon to reach Homestead II, and that’s ship time. I’m not remotely technical enough to figure out the actual acceleration curve for Avalon, but 32 years into the 120 years it’s doing 50% of light speed and the drive is on the whole time so it’s definitely accelerating continuously; peak speed is going to be more than 50% lightspeed, and that means time dilation is a real factor. 120 years ship time is going to be quite a bit longer in Earth’s frame of reference. It’s going to add at least 10% to the time back on Earth. The Homestead Corporation’s business plan is spelled out for us; subsidise many of the passengers in return for a share in their income when they arrive. That’s spend now, get a return starting a minimum of 130 years later. Worse than that, the return is on a planet it takes 120 years to get to, in a universe where messages can’t travel any faster than light (we see this when Chris can’t phone home and get an answer before he dies of old age), so it’s going to be at least 200 years before - let’s imagine - a wire transfer could get the money back to Earth where it was first spent. Homestead Corporation must have the world’s most gullible investors.

But more than that, what kind of business plan has them doing return trips? The ship’s going to get back at least 260 years after it set out. It’s going to be as if the Santa Ana arrived back from dropping off to Columbus and collided with the Great Eastern. They’ll just put it in a museum. Indeed, the chances are that by the time it gets to Homestead II, they’ll be met at that end by an improved ship which can travel faster than light. Or even at a sustained 90% light speed instead of peak 50-60% Even if took them 100 years to come up with it, it would still get there ahead of the Avalon. And everyone talks about these journeys as though they’re happening all the time and everyone knows how they works, but literally no-one will ever have seen one of these things come back before they could have got on board one going out. 

This is terrible SF, because it’s SF which isn’t thinking about the world it has to have for any of the stuff we’re seeing to be happening at all.

What else? Oh yeah, the best single setpiece has gravity failing while Jennifer Lawrence is swimming in the pool; which forms a huge bubble that she gets trapped in and can’t swim out of. On the one hand, there’s absolutely no reason for a huge mass of water to rise up out of the pool just because gravity has taken the day off. Inertia hasn’t taken a holiday, and nothing moves unless something pushes it. On the other hand, the problem in moving in zero gravity is that you’ve nothing to push back against and you just float in the air or the vacuum. But if you’re in a big bubble of water, you can push back against that easily; that’s why swimming works in the first place, even though you’re floating in the water. Gravity has nothing to do with it, and loss of gravity doesn’t change that. Great looking bit, whether it’s got Jennifer in a swimsuit or not, but it makes no scientific sense.

I’d like to imagine that they kept JLaw, hired Jake Gyllenhall, and had no more money than it took to make the first Solaris, so that they wound up making a movie about people dealing with a horrible choice and the horrible consequences, and had nothing left over to distract us with brilliant looking stupid effects. I bet they’d actually have wound up with more money in the bank. I’d have been a lot less fed up at the end of it too.