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 neat 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.