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Posts Tagged ‘2016’

At what point does entertainment cross the threshold of genuine art? Is it even a meaningful distinction? Does your story have to have a certain degree of complexity or depth to it? Or can it just be a simple tale, told with artfulness and care? If so, at what point does worthwhile embellishment become actual pretension and self-indulgence? Lots to think about here, and the film that got me pondering this particular issue is Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, from 2016.

(Yes, it’s another Almodovar review – what can I say, having finally discovered this director I’m in a hurry to catch up, and having bought two boxed sets of his films recently I would anticipate a string of further reviews to come. What can I say? At least you’re not having to pay for this stuff.)

Not for the first time, the film initially presents a kind of narrative puzzle-box, the contents of which only become clear as it proceeds. The central character is Julieta (Emma Suarez), a middle-aged woman living in Madrid. She and her partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) are on the verge of completing a long-planned move to Portugal together, even though it seems that Julieta is not quite as committed to this as him. Then, quite by chance, she meets a young woman in the street – a childhood friend of her daughter’s. The friend reports meeting Julieta’s daughter and family in Switzerland. It is a casual conversation for the friend, but the impact of it seems to strike Julieta like a hammer-blow. She abandons her plans to go to Portugal, ignoring how hurtful this is to Lorenzo, moves into an apartment in the building where she used to live, and begins to obsessively write an account of her life, for her daughter Antia’s benefit.

It begins many years earlier, when Julieta (played in her younger days by Adriana Ugarte) had yet to settle down and was working as a supply teacher. While travelling by train one night, her journey is disrupted by the suicide of a fellow passenger – but as a result of these events she embarks on a passionate relationship with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a man she has just met. She takes his letters to her as a tacit invitation, and they resume the affair in the town where Xoan lives once her current job is over. Then it transpires that she is pregnant, and naturally everything changes. As the child, Antia, grows up, Julieta is perhaps a little dismayed that Xoan has a better relationship with her, but still reasonably happy. But tragedy is waiting for the family, and will inflict the kind of emotional wounds from which some people never completely recover…

Some people mellow with age, but Almodovar seems to have grown sourer, if that’s quite the right word for it. Certainly, while Julieta retains the outward colour and vibrancy which in many ways the director’s trademark, the story has a darker and more sombre tone than that of his most famous films. The narrative has a degree of the subtle complexity of those films, but for the most part this is a simple case of a story told mostly in flashback, the opening and closing scenes basically being a framing device. And, while the resonances with Hitchcock are less pronounced than in some other films, the story itself moves through dark territory. Julieta’s life is shaped by random chance, and many of the key events are tragic, to say the least: a suicide, a fatal boating accident, and so on. The corrosive effect of deceitfulness and dishonesty within families is also dwelt upon. The losses Julieta experiences come close to breaking her as a person – much of the film is about loneliness, isolation, and just how difficult it is to recover and rebuild when closure has not been fully achieved.

It sounds like pretty heavy going and to be honest it is – no matter how well-told the story is, there’s no escaping the fact that it gets progressively tougher to watch as it continues. It’s as close to bleak as you will find in a Pedro Almodovar movie, although the director apparently enforced a strict ‘no crying’ rule for his two lead actresses, on the grounds that this is a film about long-term despair rather than particular outbursts of grief and sadness. It is to Almodovar’s credit that the film stays as watchable as it does, given the subject matter.

This is also, of course, because of the very strong performances of both lead actresses, who keep the film accessible even when the character is not the most accessible or sympathetic of individuals. It is undeniably a little odd that the lead role is split in the way it is – when the film jumps back in time from the older Julieta (Suarez) to her younger self (Ugarte), you almost do a double take and wonder if that’s really supposed to be the same person. It soon doesn’t matter, for you get used to Ugarte’s engaging screen presence, and it does allow Almodovar one of his most impressive cinematic flourishes – when the film reaches the point at which the older Julieta is again played by Emma Suarez, it happens mid-scene, and again you almost do a double-take, the change is not immediately obvious.

Still, the decision to split the role remains a slightly curious one, which the director defended by expressing his doubt about the believability of old-age make-up and the unique presence possessed by older actresses. (At one point this film was intended to be Almodovar’s English-language debut, to be made abroad and starring Meryl Streep as the older Julieta – one wonders who would have played the younger one.) It is just one of a number of choices which some might take issue with. The film is a relentlessly emotional one, with stirring music non-stop on the soundtrack (or so it feels, anyway); if it were just a little less subtle you could easily call it a melodrama. Still, this isn’t the first Almodovar film you could call a bit melodramatic. Then there is the question of the unresolved conclusion of the film, which I would imagine seriously hacks off anyone who sits through the film’s heavy third act in the hope of a carthatic, affirmative ending with everything resolved. Personally, I think the ending works – it’s a bold choice, but it certainly feels like it suits the rest of the film.

I think it would be stretching a point to suggest that Julieta is quite up to the same standard as the films he was making in the late 1990s and early 2000s – it falls just a little short in terms of ambition, if not in execution, and it doesn’t have the same kind of audacity or life to it. Nevertheless, when even a slightly sub-par film is as good as this, it’s a sign that the person responsible is a director of the first rank. Even off-the-boil Almodovar is still a formidable talent.

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There were, of course, many things about the pre-financial crisis world that any sensible person might look back on with a sense of regret and nostalgia. For myself, one of these is Borders, a chain of bookshops which operated on an epic scale – just a bit too epic, as it turned out. These days the Borders which I most often frequented have turned into branches of Tescos or pet supply shops; I suppose I should just be grateful that Waterstones survived the cull.

Adding just a little piquancy to all this fond remembrance (don’t worry, we will get to something of substance fairly soon) is the fact that, during the last months of Borders’ existence, I found myself somewhat financially embarrassed and was entirely unable to take full advantage of the bounty on offer. The only thing I remember buying was a book which, on later reflection, I found myself almost wishing I hadn’t: Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (based, obviously, on the famous novel by Jane Austen, who is rather cheekily credited as co-writer).

I will spare you yet further ramblings about my somewhat turbulent relationship with different incarnations of Pride and Prejudice, and merely note that Grahame-Smith’s parody is another manifestation of the Great Zombie Boom of recent years. The book itelf was successful enough to spawn various follow-ups, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, while Grahame-Smith put his obvious talent for a snappy title to work and went on to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, filmed by Timur Bekmambetov a few years ago.

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it’s a funny title which tells you exactly what to expect, but is it actually something you can drag out for the length of a whole novel? It’s a funny concept, but you need a bit more if you’re making anything longer than a comedy sketch.

All very relevant, one would suspect, to the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written and directed by Burr Steers, and produced by Natalie Portman, who was clearly at one point really desperate to play Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what the context. This is another of those films that never made it to the local cinemas in Oxford, and I was quite glad to catch up with it, even if my expectations were, shall we say, moderate at best.

Steers has a conscientious go at setting the scene in a manner which is vaguely coherent: the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century brings all kinds of foreign exotica to England’s green and pleasant lands, most notably the zombie virus, which proceeds to sweep the nation. London is fortified (a touch of steampunk here), and sensible folk of the upper classes invest in combat training so they may defend themselves against the undead hordes.

It is against this backdrop that much of the same plot as in the traditional Pride and Prejudice unfolds: the Bennets are a well-bred but slightly impecunious family, and Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is determined to find good and wealthy husbands for her five daughters. Top of the list are Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Elizabeth (Lily James). The arrival at the neighbouring estate of the dashing and wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) is surely a good sign, but his stern friend Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seems to disapprove entirely of the Bennets. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds her head turned somewhat by Wickham (Jack Huston), a young soldier who appears to have been badly wronged by Darcy. Can the Bennet girls find romance and happiness? Could it be that Elizabeth has badly misjudged Darcy?

And, of course, there are also zombies rampaging about the countryside, although as this film is only a 15 certificate in the UK, the actual blood-soaked horror is inevitably a bit low-key. One of the big differences between the Grahame-Smith novel and the movie is that the latter moves much further away from the original Austen story, inserting much more of an action-adventure climax involving the Four Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse, not to mention the Zombie Antichrist.

I can kind of see why they’ve done this, as its identity as an action-horror zombie movie is clearly very important to this film – note the poster, on which the word ‘Zombies’ is considerably larger than the others. But it does inevitably take the movie further away from Jane Austen, which – given the whole point of the thing is that it’s an Austen-based mash-up – is surely a mistake. Perhaps it’s just an indication that this film has a fundamental problem, trying to bring together things which just don’t fit in the same story.

Well, maybe, maybe not. My problem with the book was that Grahame-Smith seemed to have chickened out of just putting zombies into Pride and Prejudice – which is, as noted, a funny idea – and had started trying to be actively funny, with creaky jokes like ‘Mr Bingley was famous for the size of his balls’, and the inclusion of the whole martial arts element, which isn’t rooted in the works of either Jane Austen or George A Romero.

Perhaps the problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is quite funny as an idea, but once you start actually writing the story and genuinely attempt to stay true to both elements, it turns into something else. You could make it work, probably, but it wouldn’t be the comedy that the title suggests.

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sort of hangs together as a zombopocalypse movie with a period setting – and in its own way it’s not much tonally weirder than Maggie, for instance – and in some ways it’s the Austen-specific bits of the plot that feel intrusive. It’s as any kind of comedy that it falls down, being fatally short on wit and self-awareness. Mostly, it takes itself painfully seriously, and the actually funny bits are the ones that feel like they’ve wandered in from a different film – Matt Smith (one of many actors who’ve managed to swing the ‘and’ position in the credits on this film) goes into comedy overdrive as Mr Collins and blasts everyone else off the screen, while a crucial scene between Elizabeth and Darcy juxtaposes authentically Austenesque dialogue with the pair of them engaging in hand-to-hand combat: suddenly the film comes to life, even though it feels like much more of a spoof as it does so. (The moment where a hot-under-the-collar Darcy dives into a lake, an emendation of the story first added by the BBC in 1995, makes an appearance, apparently because it’s expected to nowadays. It’s handled completely straight even though it’s surely ripe for spoofing.)

But these are only a handful of moments in what is quite a long film which never quite figures out its own identity – does it want to be a proper costume drama, a rom-com, an action horror movie, or what? Is it actually supposed to be funny? And if so, on what level? Is it trying to be clever, or knowingly dumb? It’s genuinely difficult to tell, not least because the answers seem to change throughout the course of the film.

As I have often noted in the past, you can do a lot with zombies (as recent films have shown). But you can’t do everything with them, or at least not all in the same movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes a talented and attractive cast and doesn’t give them the material they deserve, apparently never quite knowing what to do with them. It may be the film-makers never settled on the type of film they wanted to make. It may be that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is only funny as a title, not an actual story. I’m not actually sure. But I’m sure that this is a movie which doesn’t really work.

 

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All good things must come to an end, apparently, but the wave of zombie horror films which effectively began in 2002 with 28 Days Later shows no sign whatsoever of losing its momentum or popularity. It’s almost reached the point where one is tempted to stop describing it as a wave or fad at all, and just accept the popularity of zombie films as being an innate part of the contemporary cinema landscape, in the same way that, over the last fifteen or twenty years, superhero movies have come to dominate blockbuster film-making (according to this logic, a big-budget version of the Marvel Zombies miniseries would surely obliterate all known box-office records).

Certainly, the zombie movie seems to be in paradoxically good health at present, with the films themselves showing no sign of losing the capacity to surprise, delight, and appal. Just last year there was the exceptional British SF-zombie movie The Girl With All The Gifts, and also a South Korean take on the genre, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan.

Just fleetingly, it looks like Train to Busan is going to go where virtually no movie has gone before and actually show Ground Zero of a zombipocalypse, as a bad-tempered van driver is stopped by police at a roadblock and told there’s been a leak at a nearby biological research facility. Going on his way, the driver hits and apparently kills a sweet-looking deer – but after he leaves the scene, the animal twitches, writhes, and then gets back on its feet, eyes now milky and dead. Is it a zombie? Is it Bambi? No, it’s Zombambi! (A brilliant title for a zombie film about undead woodland creatures, I think you’ll agree.)

However, at this point the movie jumps ahead and we meet Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a workaholic fund manager who has been neglecting his relationship with his adorable young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), even when it’s her birthday. In an attempt to make up for this, he agrees to take her to visit her mother in the coastal city of Busan. All the way to the station there are signs that something odd is going on – there are reports of rioting, and the emergency services seem to be out in force – but Seok-woo and Su-an make their train without much difficulty, and it gets away on time. But not before a young woman scrambles aboard at the last minute, in distress and suffering from a peculiar bite on her leg…

Well, you can doubtless see where this is going, as Seok-woo, Su-an, and everyone else on the train find themselves having to contend with the zombie virus going, well, viral in a rather confined space. These are hyperactive zombies of the modern kind, rabidly attacking everyone around them, and the non-infected passengers have to battle their way to safety. But what does safety mean on a train full of zombies, with the rest of the country falling into chaos even as they travel through it?

The thing about Train to Busan is that, once you take away the slight novelty factor of this being a zombie movie from South Korea, it’s not immediately obvious what makes it so distinctive as a film. Certainly it doesn’t make any great innovations in terms of how it treats its monsters – these are pretty standard high-energy modern zombies, although there’s a plot point about them not being able to see in the dark – or the way in which it uses the zombipocalypse notion as a vehicle for social commentary. There’s not a great deal new about its characterisations, either. Yet it’s every bit as arresting a film as The Girl With All The Gifts, and arguably works even better on a visceral, kinetic level.

This is largely because the script (written by Park Joo-Suk) takes one deceptively simple idea – zombies on a train! – and really puts it to work. The images of swarms of zombies surging down narrow train carriages towards the protagonists are terrifying, but film goes on to systematically work the basic concept for all it’s worth – train bathrooms, train connecting doors, train luggage-racks: all of these are put to work in the ongoing narrative, and when the story is obliged to get off the train itself (as it occasionally does) there are always train stations, train depots, and train crashes to provide the scenery for a bit more blood-soaked jeopardy.

It’s also fair to say that the film’s influences extend beyond the classic zombie movie to include, most obviously, the various tropes of disaster movies. For a while the film definitely becomes an ensemble piece, with Seok-woo and Su-an forced to co-operate with a bunch of other characters, including a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her loudmouthed husband (Ma Dong-seok), members of a high school baseball team (luckily, they’ve brought their bats), and a pair of elderly sisters. The film does a great job of really making you care about these people, and each time one of them is slowly picked off by the zombies, it’s a genuinely moving moment.

It seems obvious from the start that, thematically, this is going to be the story of how Seok-woo learns the importance of his relationship with his daughter, but the film actually goes some way beyond this – Seok-woo is initially only concerned about saving the pair of them, but Su-an is dismayed by what she sees as his selfishness. If the film’s actually about anything, it’s about compassion and concern for other people, and how these are the secret to surviving. As is quite common in this kind of film, many of the most wrenching scenes are not actually about the zombies, but the awful things that people are capable of doing to each other in order to ensure their own survival (there’s a not tremendously subtle subplot involving a repugnant businessman and his utterly self-centred attempts to get away in one piece). You could also argue the film is about responsibility – at one point Seok-woo learns his own company funded the experiments which started the zombie outbreak, and in the next scene he is in one of the bathrooms, distraught, trying to wash blood off his hands (as I say, this isn’t always the most understated of films).

But also it works because it’s a hugely ambitious film that isn’t afraid to go big when the situation demands it – the big set pieces are huge, and terrifically exciting, with zombies hurling themselves through windows or being dragged behind trains like an undead carpet in an attempt to reach the main characters. This isn’t just an action horror movie, by any means, but it is that too – and it’s an action horror movie that delivers thrills and gore and shocks in spades. No doubt an inferior US remake is already in the works, for this is one of those films that simply works, on every level. Watching Train to Busan feels like watching your very first zombie film all over again, for it takes the genre and makes it feel new and vital like few other movies have managed recently. A phenomenal piece of entertainment.

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Gratifying though it has been to see the great Mr Jason Statham become much more a fixture of major studio movies, with his appearances in the Fast & Furious franchise, the Expendables series, and even a Melissa McCarthy comedy, there has been a definite downside to this – namely that vehicles headlined by Mr Statham himself have become that much thinner on the ground. The fact that the last couple of these didn’t even shown at my multiplex of choice doesn’t help much either – well, at least Netflix loves Jason, even if the Odeon doesn’t.

One victim of Odeon’s Stathamophobia was last year’s Mechanic: Resurrection, which is ostensibly a sequel to 2011’s The Mechanic. To be honest, though, it could really be a sequel to almost any Jason Statham film you care to mention, inasmuch as he is (as usual) playing the Jason Statham Character – which is to say, a tough, taciturn professional whose lethal skills are offset by a strict code of honour.

Rather amusingly, Mechanic: Resurrection‘s director, Dennis Gansel, has opted for the possessive credit (i.e., ‘A film by…’), which is more sensibly reserved for films with a distinctive artistic vision and aspirations to be high art. None of these things is true of a normal Jason Statham movie, and they’re especially not true of this one.

Mr Statham plays Bishop, a retired assassin who specialised in making his handiwork look like an accident. These days he is living the life of Riley in Brazil on his lovely yacht, but, wouldn’t you just know it, his past is about to catch up with him. A young woman turns up and refuses to let Mr Statham’s clever attempts to pretend to be Brazilian fool her. ‘You can’t even get the accent right,’ she observes, which (given Jason Statham’s notoriously variable attempts to sound American) is about as close as the film gets to actual wit. Anyway, she is in the employ of one of Mr Statham’s old acquaintances, Crane (Sam Hazeldine), who has unfinished business with him. Not that it really matters much, but apparently both Bishop and Crane were effectively sold into slavery as children and trained as child soldiers by a gangster. This might make more sense if they didn’t both have London accents, but I digress. Anyway, Crane wants Bishop to carry out three looking-like-an-accident assassinations, or it will go the worse for him.

After a second or so’s consideration, Mr Statham refuses the young lady’s offer in the traditional courteous fashion, by hitting her over the head with a table. Pausing only to beat up all of her bodyguards, he departs (by hurling himself atop a passing hang-glider) and clears off to Thailand and the beach resort of his old friend Mei (Michelle Yeoh, soon to go where no Hong Kong action star has gone before).

Here he meets Gina (Jessica Alba), a young woman who appears to be having trouble with an abusive boyfriend. At Mei’s prompting, Mr Statham intervenes (he’s very ready to sit in judgement on men who are violent to women, given only five minutes earlier he was hitting girls with tables), and the man with a legendary skill when it comes to premeditatedly killing folk and making it look accidental, accidentally kills the dude but makes it look rather like a murder. Hey, everyone has a bad day once in a while, I guess.

It turns out that Gina is also in the employ of Crane, the plan being that she will get it on with him and then allow herself to be kidnapped, thus giving Crane leverage over our man. She is still basically a good sort, though, as she is ex-US Army and also runs an orphanage in Cambodia. Not entirely surprisingly, the two of them get it on anyway, at which point Crane’s goons indeed turn up and kidnap her. Slow off the mark, there, Mr S.

Well, Mr Statham has to go off and do the three assassinations after all, but luckily they are horrible people so his conscience stays fairly clear. I suppose you could call these sequences little vignettes – Bishop has to get himself in and out of a maximum security Thai prison, which involves exploding chewing gum and a fake facial tattoo (done in biro from the look of things), and then does his human fly impression up the side of an Australian skyscraper to flush a human trafficker out of the bottom of his own swimming pool. Then it’s off to Bulgaria for his date with his final target, an American arms dealer (Tommy Lee Jones).

The presence of a relatively substantial performer like Jones, along with that of a high-profile leading lady like Jessica Alba, might lead you to conclude that this is a more serious and credible Jason Statham movie. You would be entirely wrong, I am afraid, for this is a Jason Statham movie in the classic vein, even – if I may be so bold – an especially preposterous one. (In case you were wondering, Tommy Lee Jones basically contributes an extended cameo, while Jessica Alba is, perhaps not for the first time in her career, essentially just ornamental flesh.)

The cinematography is quite nice, I suppose, and the various scenes of Jason Statham doing intricate, determined things in the course of his assassinations are well managed. This is one of those films where Mr Statham spends most of his time scowling intensely, with perhaps a touch of wistfulness now and then – he’s perfectly good at this, and also in the numerous action sequences. For some reason he spends quite a lot of the film in a wetsuit this time, but this is far from the oddest thing about it.

The problems mainly lie with the script, which is hackneyed, has nothing new to offer, and oscillates between deep predictability and moments of the utterly absurd – at one point the villains’ yacht leaves Sydney harbour, and then seemingly only a few hours later is cruising in the Black Sea. Now, I do like a touch of the outlandish and crazy in my Jason Statham movies – it’s the contrast between Statham’s completely deadpan approach to the material and its frequent barking silliness which gives them their distinctive tone – but somehow here it all feels just a bit perfunctory, not even remotely grounded in reality.

The opening section of the film is fairly engaging, but once Mr Statham sets off about his various assassinations, it rapidly becomes – dare I say it – completely mechanical, with very little in the way of characterisation or intentional humour. By the time the final act arrived, with a succession of uninspired shoot-ups and obvious plot twists, I actually found it a genuine struggle to stay focused on the movie and not start thinking about something else. Long-term readers will know that this is something that is very rarely the case with a Statham movie.

I really don’t know. I am, obviously, a fan of Jason Statham, and have sat and watched nearly all his movies and mostly enjoyed them – and while this one does have a few bits and pieces in it to divert the attention and reward the faithful, at the same time it too often feels formulaic and poorly thought through. I really like Jason Statham because he is usually a front man whose presence is the indicator of a Good Bad Movie. Mechanic: Resurrection, unfortunately, is just a Bad Movie.

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Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, as much as you can honestly enjoy any part of this film in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level it is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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It’s a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.

Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney’s latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I’m-sick-of-waiting-let’s-just-release-the-damn-thing, but I doubt it.

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I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today’s most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my friends is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop’s hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It’s telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)

Despite all that, it’s Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).

Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship’s systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future…

If you’ve just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.

However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I’ve come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that’s the case. It’s quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer’s keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.

One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he’s okay here, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but on the other hand it’s not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.

In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can’t base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there’s a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn’t appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it’s also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.

(It’s a minor issue, but the film’s world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been ‘thousands’ of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It’s like The Forever War with nicer decor.)

The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don’t think it’s up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It’s not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it’s that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn’t call it a good one, either.

 

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