Friday, 17 February 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 February 2017

XXX - The Return of Xander Cage

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

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

Well, I wanted something stupid.

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

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

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

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