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 idea 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 EuropaCorp 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.