Thursday, 27 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell; looking great might not be enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Free Fire; there's a game in this

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

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

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

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

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

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