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Gull meets Buoy

From Blake Lively’s Spanish for Surfers (forthcoming):

La recepción del teléfono es excelente en esta playa. – The telephone reception is excellent on this beach.

¡Que hermoso día! Sin duda, nada lo hará posiblemente puede salir mal. – What a lovely day! Surely nothing can possibly go wrong.

Espera, ¿qué es que en el mar preocuparse cerca de mí? – Wait, what is that in the sea worryingly close to me?

Me gustaría saber la palabra española para “shark”. – I wish I knew the Spanish word for shark.

¡Ay! – Ouch!

Por casualidad, yo soy un estudiante de medicina y por lo tanto no es completamente irracional para mí para aplicar puntos de sutura improvisados a mi herida por mordedura sangrienta. – Fortuitously, I am a medical student and so it is not completely unreasonable for me to apply improvised stitches to my gory bite wound.

Al menos las gaviotas son amables. – At least the seagulls are friendly.

(And so on.)

As I think I have mentioned, as a general rule I tend to stay clear of modern comedies and horror movies, mainly because neither of them really do it for me consistently. Still, the pickings are so slim at the moment that sometimes you have to waive a principle, and so I found myself going along to see Blake Lively in Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows – though, just to be on the safe side, I ensured things would not be too hairy by going in the company of a colonel from the Special Forces of a major Gulf nation. He had nachos.

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Blake Lively is one of those actresses who doesn’t appear to feel the need to be popping up in films all over the place, but who is generally worth watching when she does (I say this mainly based on my experience of watching her in The Age of Adaline, if we’re honest). In The Shallows, she plays Nancy, a surf-loving medical student who as the film starts is on her way to a secluded Mexican beach to indulge her favourite pastime. The audience’s suspicions are perhaps piqued when her guide, despite repeated questions, refuses to tell her the name of the beach, which is mostly likely The Bloody Beach of Toothy Death.

That said, the Bloody Beach of Toothy Death is very pleasant when she arrives on it and for a while the film looks like a commercial for shampoo and sunscreen, with some of the usual whistles and bells modern films tend to use to depict thoroughly-well-connected modern people sending texts and having video-phone calls. In the end, though, Lively hops on her board and heads off into the surf.
All is well at first, but then she happens upon the half-eaten carcass of a whale, and the large and bad-tempered shark responsible. The shark decides it would rather not eat the other half of the shark, on the grounds that Lively is a more appetising prospect (hmm, well), and has a go at eating her instead. Cue scenes of Lively being dragged underwater in a cloud of her own blood and the Colonel dropping his nachos everywhere.

Well, anyway, Lively manages to evade the hungry shark and clambers onto a worryingly small rock just above the level of the water, where she is alone except for a friendly seagull. Her predicament is an original one: she is only a couple of hundred metres from the beach (close enough to see her own bag on the sand), in fairly shallow water, but she has no chance of making it all the way to the breakers without getting chomped. What’s a girl to do?

The Shallows is one of those movies which is, let’s be honest about it, highly derivative to the point of arguably being some sort of exploitation fodder (there is rather a lot of Lively looking very photogenic in her bikini, even while theoretically suffering from the early stages of gangrene). Even based on the capsule description I just presented, you can probably start off the list yourself: most obviously Jaws, then moving on to include Open Water, any number of blonde-in-peril horror films, and even arguably touching on the likes of Gravity. The thing is that it blends together influences from so many different sources so seamlessly that it doesn’t just feel like it’s cashing in on any one of them in particular. It has its own sort of identity, even if it’s not an especially distinctive one.

The presence of Lively, as opposed to a generic scream queen in training, does lift the film a bit as she gives a very good performance, pretty much carrying most of the film single-handed – for much of the running time her only co-stars are a seagull and the shark, neither of whom can emote as well as her – and doing a fine job of it. Part of me wonders if the decision to go more mainstream with this film may not actually hurt its chances – it’s rather less of a horror film than I expected and more of a thriller, with commensurately lower levels of gore and grue.

Still, the scene with the improvised sutures was enough to set the Colonel chortling to himself and proferring nachos in my direction, and there is surely enough grisliness to satisfy anyone who isn’t a pathological gorehound. The film works hard to keep up a good pace and a sense of plausibility, even if this means it’s quite a long time before the shark turns up – lots of scenes filling in Lively’s not-exactly-essential backstory and family situation ensue – and the film itself having a comparatively bite-sized 86-minute running time. In the end, though, it works quite well – only in the very closing stages do things start to get even remotely silly. (I’m still not completely convinced about the manner in which the plot is ultimately resolved.)

The film works best when it’s about Lively and the shark, anyway. You can see what they’re trying to do by incorporating Lively’s various personal issues into the storyline – as mentioned, they’re trying to do what Gravity did, where Sandy Bullock’s physical predicament was kind of a metaphor for her emotional situation, something which worked so perfectly it elevated the film to an even higher level. Unfortunately, Lively’s personal problems aren’t so well defined, and being stuck on rock or a buoy being chased by a shark isn’t a natural realisation of them, metaphorically. As a result, they just make the film feel a bit over-egged and even a touch pretentious (given this is basically a girl-in-swimsuit-has-fight-with-hungry-fish movie).

Nevertheless, both the Colonel and I emerged feeling we had not wasted 86 minutes of our lives (plus about 20 minutes of trailers and commercials) and that this was basically a pretty good film. It’s probably not horrific enough for some people, and perhaps a bit too horrific for others, but for everyone else in between it is a very decent thriller, inventively directed, solidly written, and with an impressively capable central performance. You’re never really in doubt about what’s going to happen next, but the film plays with your expectations inventively enough to make it a fun watch for most of its duration.

Life for Brent

Through one of those obscure processes not accessible to the likes of you and me, it seems that the back end of August has been designated that time in the calendar when films based on British TV sitcoms get released – the hipper, edgier ones, at least, for films cashing in on cosy old favourites like Dad’s Army and Absolutely Fabulous are permitted to wander off into the world at any old time. If we’re honest, the revival in this particular form is most likely down to the wholly unexpected success of the movie version of The Inbetweeners five years ago, but a revival there definitely has been.

Not much like The Inbetweeners and rather more like 2013’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa comes the latest attempt at this sort of thing, David Brent: Life on the Road, written, directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais. Gervais is insistent that this film is not ‘an Office movie’, despite the fact that it shares its central character with the BBC sitcom The Office (2001-3), the show which brought Gervais to stardom. Hmm, well. The thing about Alpha Papa was that it felt (to me at least) like a film that had missed its natural moment by a few years, and one in fact made solely because Coogan’s Hollywood career was showing signs of faltering and the actor was in need of a guaranteed hit. Is the same true of Gervais’ adventures in Hollywood? Hard to say, I suppose, but I don’t recall seeing him making a prominent appearance since Muppets Most Wanted.

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Anyway – The Office is so old now that it may in fact have started before I wrote my first internet film review, and was a deadpan parody of the then-ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall docu-soap genre. It focused primarily on David Brent (Gervais himself), the manager of a paper merchants in Slough. Brent almost instantly became an iconic comedy grotesque, a marginally competent manager afflicted with a wholly unwarranted belief in his ability as a great entertainer, and crippled by a pathological need to be liked by and popular with everyone around him.

Not quite the stuff of comfortable comedy, as you can probably imagine or recall. Watching Brent/Gervais crucify himself in the most cringeworthy manner imaginable worked in thirty-minute chunks, from the comfort of an armchair, but ninety minutes? In a cinema? Without the other, somewhat more sympathetic characters?

The conceit of the film is that Brent has once again been approached by a documentary crew, who want to make a ‘where are they now’ type film. However, Brent decides to turn this into a rockumentary about himself, and taking a break from his current job as a sales rep for cleaning products, where he is largely surrounded by people who pity and despise him, goes off on a tour of the length and breadth of the Slough area with a group of hired session musicians, who also pity and despise him. Brent seeks to establish himself as a rock star, fronting the band Foregone Conclusion, cashing in his pension to do so. Also along is Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), a genuinely talented young rapper who has somehow fallen into Brent’s orbit and is dragged along in a state of bemusement.

David Brent’s chances of realising his dream are not helped by the material he opts to present on his tour, for most of his set consists of well-intentioned but monumentally inappropriate songs dealing with topics such as a brief romance with a gypsy (sample lyric: ‘She said “Yes, the sex is free/But the heather’s a pound”‘), the plight of Native Americans (‘Don’t call us Indians/We’re more south Eurasians crossed with Siberians’) and the problems of disabled people (‘You might have to feed the worse ones through a straw’). The joke, of course, is that he is fundamentally well-meaning, but completely hopeless; the audience is intended to be laughing at him rather than with him throughout.

So, this is essentially a film about a rather desperate and pathetic man throwing away his life savings in pursuit of a ridiculous, impossible dream. Whose idea of a comedy is this? Well, I’m still not sure that ninety minutes of virtually undiluted Brent is really a good idea – at least in the TV show you had the bits with Gareth, Dawn and Tim to look forward to – especially when it’s not as if there aren’t other capable folk in the film who could have shared some of the load. I was particularly sorry not to see more of Brent’s useless publicist, played by Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk).

But, if the idea of sitting for an hour and a half in a whole-body clench peering at the screen through the gaps between your fingers doesn’t put you off, there is much to entertain and enjoy here. Some of the business is a bit predictable, as is the plot, but Ricky Gervais remains a clearly extremely smart guy who can take this kind of comedy of transgression and embarrassment as far as he possibly can. The songs are extremely funny (no sign of Free Love Freeway, surprisingly enough), as well as sometimes being rather catchy too (I was humming the chorus to Native American all the way home on the bus). In fact, one of the neatest bits of sleight-of-hand he pulls off is managing to make Brent’s stage performances ridiculous while still suggesting that Gervais himself might well have some talent as a musical performer. His talents as a writer-director and actor are surely in no doubt: he gives an impressively subtle performance, with a desperate, forlorn sadness creeping into his eyes even as Brent is grinning cheesily away.

(Apparently record companies are pursuing Gervais with a view to making him go on an actual tour in-character as Brent, singing these songs. I will be slightly surprised if this happens, not least because that would surely be missing the point, and run the risk of having them taken non-ironically by people who hold exactly the views Gervais is trying to satirise. But we’ll see.)

I’m still not sure it really qualifies as a comedy though, given how excruciatingly uncomfortable much of the film is to watch. If Gervais has any kind of message, it seems to be that society has got nastier and more vicious in the last fifteen years, and this is reflected in Brent’s treatment by the people around him. The really sad thing is how much of it rings true, as well. Given that this is the case, the film has to work very hard to come up with an ending that isn’t totally downbeat and offers the prospect of some kind of redemption and happiness for Brent without seeming totally contrived and improbable. It does so, but only just; you really have to cut the film a bit of slack here.

As I admit fairly frequently, not many modern comedies genuinely manage to get a laugh out of me, but David Brent: Life on the Road did so. Maybe this was partly because I still retain some affection for The Office, which struck many chords with me at the time (I have to work hard to keep my own Brentish tendencies under tight control), but I hope it’s also because this is a very clever, well-observed film made by someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. If this is Ricky Gervais’ last outing as David Brent, then he does the character justice, as well as hopefully reminding the world what a singular comic talent he possesses. I’m very certain this film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather impressive in its own way.

 

I’m hearing a lot of talk about ‘superhero fatigue’ at the moment – the notion that somehow people are going to get sick of seeing a new comic-book movie come out, on average, about once every two months. Hmmm, well – having lived through many years when there were no decent superhero movies to speak of, once every two months strikes me as being just about right. You’ll notice I said ‘decent’, because the likes of Steel, Catwoman, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace have always been with us. Provided the standard stays high I see no reason why people will stop watching.

That’s a big assumption, though. Quite what dark art Marvel Studios have employed to produce so many movies in a row without a significant misstep I don’t know, but – and I’m aware this assertion is going to be met with bared teeth by some people – if you want to see how this sort of thing probably shouldn’t be done, you can always take a look at DC’s recent movie output, for they haven’t released an entirely unproblematic film since The Dark Knight Rises, four years ago. Still, you can’t fault their determination, for they’re at it again with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

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It sounds like a winning premise: with Superman indisposed (i.e., and spoiler alert, dead) following the end of Batman Vs Superman, and Batman and Wonder Woman off the scene, the US government is concerned about who’s going to pick up the slack if another giant alien monster goes on a rampage. The solution comes from ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – get a bunch of the villains previously defeated by Batman and other superheroes, fit them with remote controlled explosives to ensure compliance, and deploy them as a deniable task force of superpowered operatives.

The collection of nutters thus assembled is led by top soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and includes ace marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), human flamethrower El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), atavistic cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), immortal sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), and the Australian villain Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whose main superpower is being a ridiculous national stereotype.

Others in the US government are uneasy with the idea of entrusting national security to ‘witches, gangbangers and crocodiles’ (they forget to mention ridiculous national stereotypes and people whose only apparent superpower appears to be acting like a homicidal pole dancer), but soon enough a crisis erupts with a giant supernatural entity on the loose in Midway City (Hawkman has clearly been clearly slacking off) and the Squad are rushed into action. But there is inevitably a wrinkle – the Joker (Jared Leto, giving us a very Frank Miller-esque take on the character) wants his girlfriend back, and is drawing up plans to get involved himself…

Is it overstating things to say that DC’s movie division seems to wobble from one crisis to another in a perpetual state of omni-shambles, with virtually every news story about them featuring the words ‘urgent talks are in progress’? Well, maybe. But there were apparently heated discussions after the relative underperformance of Batman Vs Superman, and even before that suggestions that this film was being reshot and reedited to give it more of chance of hooking the audience that made Deadpool such an unexpectedly big hit.

It certainly has the whiff about it of a film that has gone through extensive surgery in the editing suite: key plot beats are critically underdeveloped, and the structure of the film is odd and lumpy, often at the expense of the storytelling. Most of the Squad are given fairly detailed introductions, especially if they’re played by an A-list star, but then just as they’re about to go off on the mission, a brand new member turns up with no introduction at all (and a frankly rubbish superpower) and you just think ‘This guy is clearly just here as cannon fodder who will die in the next ten minutes’ – and he does! Not that the film couldn’t do with losing a few characters – super-obscure superhero Katana turns up, played by Karen Fukuhara, and does pretty much nothing at all. (Fukuhara says she wants to ‘explore the character’s back-story’ in the sequel, and it’s easy to see why: she has virtually no back-story here and is essentially just another national stereotype.) You could even argue that the film would be significantly improved with the Joker completely excised, for he has nothing to do with the main plot and just capers about bafflingly on the fringes of the film.

No chance of that, of course, for DC are clearly fit to bust, such is their desire to get their universe up on the screen in the mighty Marvel manner. I have to say I think there’s something deeply weird about this movie being made at all, at least now. This version of the DC universe hasn’t done a standalone Batman or Flash movie so far, and yet they seem convinced there is an audience dying to see a film about second- and third-string Batman and Flash villains in which the heroes themselves barely appear. I suspect the Joker is probably the only major character in this movie which a mainstream cinema-goer will even have heard of, which is probably why he’s in it.

Then again, there probably is an audience dying to see this kind of film, it’s just a very small audience of comics fanatics. One of the key moments in the development of the modern comic book movie was the failure of Batman and Robin in 1997, which the studio apparently decided was not because it was simply a bad movie (to be fair, I still think it’s better than Batman Forever), but because it managed to alienate the core comic book fan audience. This audience is lovingly courted at great length these days, and you could argue that with Suicide Squad we see a movie made solely to gratify it, and which has started to forget that the mainstream audience is the one which actually turns a film into a genuine blockbuster hit.

Still, given an arguably less-promising premise than that of Batman Vs Superman, David Ayer does an impressive job of keeping the film accessible and entertaining, even if it feels more like a handful of really good moments scattered through a rather generic and predictably murky superhero film. Will Smith earns his top billing, bringing all his star power to bear as Deadshot (the film predictably favours Smith over some of the others), while no doubt Margot Robbie’s game performance will win her many fans. Too many of the other squad members are one-dimensional – I would have liked to see rather more of Captain Boomerang in particular, but they seem to have realised such a wacky character is a terrible fit for a film striving desperately to be dark and edgy, and he barely throws a boomerang or gets referred to by his codename throughout.

In the end, Suicide Squad is a bit of a mess on virtually every level: it’s arguably a bad idea to do this movie at all at this point in time, and its structure and storytelling are both rather suspect, to say nothing of its oddly inconsistent tone (most of the time it plays like black comedy, but some of its most effective moments are when it takes its characters seriously). As an ensemble piece, it doesn’t really work either, being too strongly skewed in favour of certain characters. That said, it’s not an un-entertaining mess, with some amusing and effective moments along the way. I didn’t come out of it wanting to hunt down and exact vengeance on the director, which was the case after Batman Vs Superman. This wouldn’t really qualify as a ringing endorsement under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances: we are in the odd world of DC’s movie output, and they do things differently here.

 

The Reborn Identity

So, DC are releasing an antihero-themed wannabe-blockbuster and there’s a new Bourne sequel with Matt Damon in the cinema too: cripes, it’s like I’m back in August 2004 all over again. (I wonder if it’s possible to leave myself a note not to bother going to see Transformers? Somehow I doubt it.) I suppose this is a timely reminder that some things never really change.

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I suppose the key thing this time around is that Jason Bourne is the first film about that character in nine years, Damon, director Paul Greengrass, and Bourne himself all having excused themselves from participating in Tony Gilroy’s rather disappointing crack at a Bourne-free Bourne movie, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. As I always seem to be saying, it took me a while to warm up to this series, and my review of the original 2002 movie is virtually the textbook case of my getting it very wrong indeed, but the prospect of a new outing from this team was always going to be a very enticing one.

Many years have passed since Bourne’s disappearance (the film appears to be set in 2015, but there is a degree of elastic movie time going on here – Bourne’s birth year is given as 1978, which is somewhat flattering to the 45-year-old Matt Damon, but it also seems to suggest that Bourne was going around topping folk in his early twenties, which somehow feels rather implausible) and a new generation of iffy projects is being cultivated by the top brass at the CIA. Determined to stop this, the CIA computers are hacked by Bourne’s old associate/handler Nicky (Julia Stiles) who downloads key files on his recruitment. The two of them hook up in riot-torn Athens, with the stolen files perhaps offering Bourne a way to reconnect with the world and find a reason for living beyond simply beating people up. But the CIA is determined to protect its secrets and mobilises its full array of resources against them…

Well, if you liked the previous Damon/Greengrass Bourne films you’re probably going to like this one, too. There is a sense in which it perhaps feels a bit formulaic in terms of the way the plot develops, but not to the point where it seriously impairs the film as a piece of serious entertainment. After the resounding phrrppp of the Jeremy Renner movie, it’s actually quite reassuring and cosy to find a film which hits so many of the familiar series beats: beady-eyed CIA analysts poised over computers, ‘Bring the Asset on-line,’ internet cafes, Matt Damon stalking purposefully out of airports and railway stations, ‘Eyes on target’, some wistful cor anglais during the character beats, a spectacularly destructive final chase sequence, Bourne displaying the kind of ability to soak up punishment normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or possibly Popeye the Sailor, Extreme Ways playing over the closing credits and so on. It doesn’t even matter that much that most of the characters are basically stock figures by this point – there is the grizzled CIA veteran (Tommy Lee Jones this time), the ambitious young operator (Alicia Vikander this time), and the fearsomely professional rival assassin whom Bourne is clearly going to have to engage in a deadly contest of skills at some point (Vincent Cassel this time).

I would happily turn up to any film featuring all these things, but the thing about the Bourne films was that they always had a bit more about them than the average action thriller, and the question is whether the new film has any reason to exist other than to profitably rehash elements of a well-regarded film franchise. Well, the jury is still thinking about that one, I suspect, for the plot of the film feels ever so slightly slapped together: the first two thirds are primarily about Bourne’s own past and his father’s hitherto-unsuspected role in the creation of the Treadstone Project, which feels more or less natural and justified – but for the final act and the climax they segue into an essentially unconnected plotline about internet privacy and the CIA infiltrating social network providers. This is the kind of hot-button topic that Paul Greengrass is clearly strongly drawn to, but it is a bit of a wrench given what precedes it, to say nothing of the fact that this kind of malevolent ubiquitous cyber-surveillance was the underwhelming Maguffin at the heart of SPECTRE, too.

I mean, this is still a superbly accomplished thriller, and miles better than the Renner movie, even if the major set pieces aren’t quite as stupendous as the ones in the previous films. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like it has the heart and soul of those films – it’s kind of searching for a reason to exist, which I suppose is Bourne’s own quest, but even so. As I said, it all feels just a little bit like a remix of the Bourne series’ greatest hits, something rather formulaic. Luckily, it’s a brilliant formula, and the result is a very satisfying piece of entertainment. The problem is that it’s inevitably going to draw comparisons with two of the very best thrillers of the last 15 years, and it simply isn’t quite up to the same standard. It says something about the older movies when the fact that this one is only a very good thriller qualifies as a disappointment.

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a SF and/or fantasy franchise to tear.

-Rudyard Kipling (almost)

The sleeping colossus of the genre stirs once more, and an uneasy stirring it is too (if you ask me). For, yea, it is Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, marking the 50th anniversary of the dearly loved series. Those who were less than delighted with JJ Abrams’ crack at Trek and overjoyed when he pushed off to finally make the Star Wars movie he’d clearly actually wanted to do all along could perhaps have been forgiven a brief mutter of ‘Oh no, not again’ when the director’s chair for this landmark was given to the gentleman responsible for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, along with several other films in that series. Was this to be a worthy and respectful tribute to one of the most successful media franchises of all time? Or just Star Trek: Qo’NoS Heist, or something of that ilk?

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Well, the movie opens with the Enterprise three years into its five year mission (i.e. at around the point the original show finally got canned). Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is restless and considering his position, possibly because he’s not allowed to wear nearly as many hats in this film as the last one. Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto) also has issues nibbling away at him, but being Spock doesn’t really talk about them much.

Shortly arriving at the Federation outpost of Yorktown (presumably a reference to Gene Roddenberry’s original pitch for the series back in 1964, when the ship was named the Yorktown, not the Enterprise), Kirk is given the mission of penetrating a nearby nebula (NB: probably not something you’d describe as a nebula if you were an actual astronomer, but I digress) and rescuing the crew of a crashed ship. Off they pop, confidently enough, but of course things never go smoothly for the Enterprise crew and they find a fleet of hostile aliens waiting for them under the command of the malevolent Krall (Idris Elba, who like many actors before him struggles a bit under heavy prosthetics). Krall, for reasons which a) constitute a plot spoiler and b) don’t really stand up to much in the way of scrutiny anyway, is determined to destroy the Federation using one of those alien superweapons which can be conveniently disassembled into portable bits, and the final bit he needs is somewhere on the Enterprise

In the movie’s first big set piece sequence, the alien fleet swats the Enterprise out of space with distressing ease, setting up the middle act of the film, in which the various crew have different adventures on Krall’s home planet before coming together again to do battle with him at the end. And I suppose this is a solid enough structure for what is a competently assembled SF action-adventure movie, if a bit hard to tell what’s going on at some points but what do you expect these days, fun for all the family with some not-bad jokes along the way (credit due, I suppose, to scriptwriters Doug Jung, whose only previous work I am aware of was the movie Confidence, and me ol’ mucker Simon Pegg, who does double duty as Scotty as in the last two movies).

And yet, and yet… In interviews about the film Pegg talked about the studio’s concerns with regard to it, and what particularly caught my attention was his revelation that ‘the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y’. The studio producing a Star Trek movie, concerned that their Star Trek movie might have been too Star Trek-y? What kind of Bizarro World (or, if you will, Mirror Universe) have we accidentally slipped into?

Well, I imagine the studio people will be quite relieved, for I doubt anyone will consider Star Trek Beyond to be too Star Trek-y. For those of us who do like Star Trek to be Star Trek-y, however, and can’t see the point of making Star Trek if it’s not going to be Star Trek-y, there will be the problem of how to come to terms with a Star Trek film that is (in various ways) quite Star Wars-y (again) but particularly (in some other ways) very Guardians of the Galaxy-y. The humour in this film isn’t a million miles away from that in the Marvel movie, the plot is to some degree similar, and its use of music in particular seems very much drawn from James Gunn’s film.

In short, for those of us who’ve (fairly) faithfully stuck with Star Trek since the late 70s, if not earlier, what’s on screen here has very little of the look and feel of the franchise in any of its previous incarnations. Yorktown bears no resemblence to any Starbase we’ve seen before, instead looking more like the space station from Elysium or a screen realisation of one of Iain Banks’ Culture Orbitals. There were claims that the script here would ‘deconstruct’ the whole premise of Star Trek and wrestle with the whole basis of the Federation and Starfleet’s mission statement. I saw no sign of that – instead there’s just a bad guy who’s gone a bit mad and wants to smash stuff up – not many shades of grey or opportunities for moral inquiry there.

The film-makers seem to be under the impression that the essence of Star Trek is limited entirely to the seven most prominent characters of the original TV series and their interactions with each other, and I suppose on these terms the film is something of a success: Quinto and Karl Urban are highly effective in replicating the Spock-McCoy chemistry and banter, but you never really forget that this is just a very accomplished act of homage or replication: karaoke Star Trek, which only works because it’s drawing on the work of other people long ago. All of the bits of the film which managed to genuinely move me were the ones drawing heavily on my affection for the old show and the old movies – how can you not feel a pang at seeing the Enterprise ripped apart? How can you not be moved when a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock appears, or one of the entire original cast? The fact remains that they feel weirdly out of place here, though.

The film makes a kind of stab at acknowledging Star Trek‘s heritage by inserting various references to things like the Xindi and Romulan Wars of the 22nd century, and including an old starship of a design that anyone who remembers Star Trek: Enterprise will find rather familiar. But even here I’m not completely sure the continuity hangs together, and it is kind of bizarre that the key acknowledgement made is to Enterprise, the version of Star Trek that got the franchise cancelled again after 18 years on TV.

Maybe it’s just me, but as I’ve said before, the joy and magic of Star Trek doesn’t lie in one particular set of characters, not even Kirk, Spock, and company – the great achievement of Trek is the sheer size and scope of its universe. Star Trek isn’t just the original Enterprise on its five year mission – it’s the Genesis Device, and Sulu captaining the Excelsior, and the battle against the Borg at Wolf 359, and Worf’s discommendation, and the Q Continuum, and the Dominion War, and even (God help us) the Kazon-Ogla and the Temporal Cold War and…

Needless to say none of these things are alluded to in Star Trek Beyond, but more importantly it doesn’t feel like any of them could even happen in the same universe in which this film is set. Star Wars is rock’n’roll, Star Trek is classical music – so goes the shorthand. This film feels more like hip hop, but even so, that’s still not the same thing.

Does any of this matter? To the wider audience and the suits at the studio, I suppose not: people will have a good time and the film will likely turn a tidy profit (a further offering bringing back Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk is already in the pipeline). If you don’t especially like or care that much about Star Trek this is a jolly blockbuster which will not challenge you too much. But if you do love Star Trek – all of the first 40 years of it, not just the original series and early movies – I can’t imagine it will do much for you, for it seems to me that it’s just using the name-recognition factor of the brand to promote a rather generic space adventure movie.

I am probably the worst person to give this movie an objective review. A rather dismal trend has developed over the last few years where all the things I used to love have taken on strange new forms which I find it hard to summon up much affection for: Moffat Doctor Who, Disney Star Wars, the last couple of James Bond films and Abrams Star Trek. So it may very well just be me unable to accept that the world has changed. But what can I say? When you come to love something as a child, then that love has a purity and intensity that never completely goes away, no matter how old you grow. So I will just say this: is this a competently made contemporary SF adventure with moments of warmth and charm? Yes, absolutely. Is it a worthy tribute to fifty years of Star Trek? Um, no, not at all – but in a sense there was never any reason to expect it would be. Return to your slumber, colossus.

Miss Conception

It’s the height of summer, with remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations pretty much as far as the eye can see, which means it must be time for some counter-programming (which is the ever-so-slightly-sniffy term used in some quarters to describe films actually made for intelligent adults). In the mix currently is Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, which does a pretty good job of looking like a low-budget indie comedy-drama, but…

maggies-plan-poster

Well, this is not the kind of film which flaunts the size of its budget as part of its marketing (which really does seem to be a genuine occurrence), but the presence in the cast of quite a few well-known faces suggests that this is not the teeny-tiny project you might think from the tone and subject matter (the fact that Miller is the partner of one of the world’s most celebrated actors could lead you to suspect she might have more pull than the average indie comedy-drama director, should she choose to exert it). Not that any of this really makes a difference, of course, except that right now there might be a virtue in appearing smaller and more independent than you actually are.

If nothing else, Maggie’s Plan marks another step in the ascendancy of the bodacious Greta Gerwig, and surely no-one can take exception to that? On this occasion, Gerwig plays Maggie, a young and single academic who has decided to take the plunge and have a baby, mainly because, as she says, she doesn’t want to leave her destiny in the hands of destiny. To this end she has made an arrangement with an up-and-coming pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmell) whereby she will make use of his reproductive material to conceive a child.

However, just as all of this is coming to a boil (as it were), her scheme is somewhat disrupted when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a brilliant and talented writer who is stuck in a chaotic marriage with the very demanding Georgette (Julianne Moore). Possibly to both their surprise, John and Maggie fall in love, get married, and have a child together.

And is this the happy ending everyone is surely rooting for? Um, well, no, for things get a bit complicated between Maggie, John, Georgette, and their various progeny. Maggie comes up with another plan to resolve everything (not including the pickle entrepreneur, sadly), but is she being a kind and helpful person or just a control freak?

Well, one thing you can certainly say about Maggie’s Plan is that it is really a very generous-spirited film: the characters may occasionally act in foolish or naive ways, but none of them are actually genuinely unpleasant. How much of a big deal this is will probably depend on the kind of film you usually go and see, but in this case I think it is important as it does give the film a certain kind of distinctiveness in the milieu in which it operates.

Or, to put it another way: this is a film where the main characters are usually preoccupied with all sorts of fairly rarefied social, ethical, cultural, and personal issues, never seem to have to worry about their means of support, and are generally a cerebral bunch. I mean, Maggie herself works at an university and decides to become a single mother without worrying at all about the financial and personal strain placed on her as a result. Not many real-world people think and behave this way. In short, in some ways the film is sometimes very reminiscent of Woody Allen when he’s in default mode.

Given this is the case, the fact that the film does have a current of warmth running through it – mostly down to Gerwig’s performance, for I’ve yet to see a film where she hasn’t radiated a sort of sincere decency – does set it apart from most of the Allen canon. It’s a little more willing to engage with matters on a more human level, too: I can’t imagine the notoriously fastidious Allen even considering a DIY impregnation scene, let alone putting one on-screen as happens here.

Of course, the jokes and script aren’t perhaps quite as sharp as they would be in an on-form Allen movie, but the performances are strong and the writing is intelligent and satisfying. Fimmel in particular is unrecognisable as the guy currently spending two hours covered in CGI in the Warcraft movie, though I suspect he has the same beard.

Maggie’s Plan probably won’t rock your world, but it tells its story well and engagingly, even if things do seem to get a little bit unravelled in the third act (at this point the plot becomes much less focused on Gerwig’s character, which may be the reason why). It is amusing and smart and engagingly good-natured, even if, if we’re totally honest, it isn’t that much closer to reality in some ways than the fantasies and action movies it’s presenting itself as an alternative to.

Most producers of major Hollywood summer blockbusters would probably react with dismay, to put it mildly, upon learning that their movie was not going to get a release in one of the world’s biggest and most lucrative markets. For the people behind Paul Feig’s new version of Ghostbusters, however, I suspect China’s decision not to allow the film to show in their country will come as something of a relief: it will at least give people something else to talk about, for this is a project which has attracted a higher-than-usual level of chatter since it was announced.

Ghostbusters-2016

The film is set in present day New York. Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a physicist who reluctantly finds herself drawn back to her one-time interest in parapsychology, and also her former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). A spate of ghost sightings across the city lead the duo to go into business with semi-unhinged engineer Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and former metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) as professional psychic investigators. But things seem to be quickly getting out of control, as someone seems intent on unleashing a supernatural disaster on the city. The citizens and government desperately need help, but (and I’m aware you’re probably ahead of me on this) who are they gonna call?

Yes, this is the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake which you may or may not have become aware of in recent months. If you’re going to talk about it with any degree of credibility, I suspect you are required not just to have an opinion on the film but also on its gender politics – I saw one internet comment, following the Chinese decision (apparently because the 1984 Ivan Reitman original never got shown in China there is no demand for it, but rumour suggests an arcane anti-superstition regulation in the censor’s code may also have played a part), along the lines of ‘Men, please take just two hours out of your life to watch this movie and show your support for women’ – which is not the sort of thing people usually say when recommending a Melissa McCarthy movie. It’s almost as if normal debate has been shut off and any suggestion that you don’t like this film means you are basically this century’s answer to Bobby Riggs.

This is just one of a spate of recent films, most of them remakes, which have been drawing flak for their diversity, or lack of it, while this remains a hot-button topic in many areas of popular culture. I must confess to being left bemused, at best, by a world in which the fact that a 15-year-old girl can be a character named Iron Man even makes sense, let alone gets acclaimed as a great progressive victory: attempts to retool long-standing characters with new genders, orientations, and even sometimes ethnicities strikes me as a rather cynical means of cashing in on existing name-recognition while disregarding the work of the original creators. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake at least opts to include a completely new set of characters, rather than regendering the originals – but I still think it’s a little disingenuous of the film-makers to express surprise at all the attention their decision has drawn. Making a blockbuster VFX-heavy comedy with an ensemble female cast would be a bold move and perhaps a risky one, but not especially controversial – remaking such a well-known and indeed classic film in such an ostentatiously radical and arguably odd way was always going to get a strong response. (The film itself has a couple of somewhat through-clenched-teeth gags about internet trolls, which at least shows a good degree of self-awareness.)

One wonders if there is anything more to this decision than a cheery willingness to exploit the goodwill surrounding the 1984 film, not to mention its familiarity to audiences, because this is by any standards an extremely loose remake, not just in terms of plot and characters but also in style. Ghostbusters sort of hearkens back to the original horror-comedy films like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which there was a strict delineation between the two genres – the monsters are played straight and people really do get killed; the threat is taken seriously. The new film is much more broadly and consistently comic, with plenty of slapstick and jokes about orifices, much as you’d expect from this particular set of artistes. It is also more emotionally articulate and character-driven, with an essentially human antagonist rather than an unearthly pseudo-Lovecraftian menace. That said, it also works hard to keep fans of the original on-side: all the main stars who are still alive and active in the film business get cameos, and one of them even gets the last word before the closing credits – it is (spoiler alert) ‘flapjacks’.

Well, hie me down to my reinforced bunker as the Diversity Enforcement Squad head for my garret with flaming torches in hand, but I think I’ll be sticking with the 1984 film, which I saw on the big screen again not that long ago and still found to be tremendous entertainment. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake is stuffed with un-engaging neon-hued CGI and has the same kind of deadpan, ironic, mock-bathetic sensibility as the other Paul Feig films I’ve seen, but I have to say neither of these things really draw me in any more, simply because after a while they both get a bit predictable. Wiig and McCarthy carry the film pretty well, but I suspect it’s Kate McKinnon who is going to get the best notices of the main quartet – she can probably look forward to becoming a dressing-up icon very soon, and, who knows, maybe another sort of icon too. There is also a somewhat revelatory performance from Chris Hemsworth as the new Ghostbusters’ epically dim receptionist, which I thought was one of the funniest things in the film (Hemsworth is cheerily objectified as an object of lust in a way that neither Sigourney Weaver nor Annie Potts were back in 1984 – just saying).

But in the end, as an even vaguely horror-themed film this just isn’t very spooky, and as a comedy there seemed to me to be quite long gaps between laughs. It just about functions and stays watchable as a fantasy-action movie, but then this is by far the least demanding of the three disciplines it attempts. It’ll be interesting, in the light of the Chinese decision, to see what kind of money this film makes, not least because it has clearly been set up as the start of a new franchise (Dan Aykroyd, who exec produces in addition to his cameo, has suggested a Marvel-style series of connected-but-separate series of films is in the offing, which to me sounds wildly optimistic, but we’ll see). I will be surprised if it does super well – not because I think audiences are sexist and reactionary, not because I think films with a mainly female ensemble cast are a bad idea, but simply because this isn’t a particularly accomplished film, for all that it retains one of the catchiest theme tunes in history. Not a comprehensive sliming of the classic original, by any means, but it still feels curiously lightweight and non-essential.

 

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