Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘2020’

The gravity of the current situation didn’t completely sink in with me until this weekend just gone, especially when I made one of my regular visits to the cinema. Everything was ostensibly the same as normal, but it had all changed, especially when it came to the trailers for coming attractions: there was something very detached from reality about studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June; even the ones offering a less-specific ‘Coming Soon’ seemed hopelessly optimistic. As previously mentioned hereabouts, some big movies are being pulled from the schedules and it’s hard to imagine others won’t follow suit, even if the cinemas stay open. Even Marvel Studios may finally have met their match in the coronavirus; whether this results in a fender-bender of their unreleased films piling up on top of each other remains to be seen – at the time of writing, they seem intent on hanging tough and sticking with a May date for Black Widow.

Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year’s spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what’s that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and  Bona Films (which sounds like something out of Round the Horne).

Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.

Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin’s missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet).

Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself a lot and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).

But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn’t this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?

Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, with everyone encouraged to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the movie I spend my Sunday evening watching: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: every trip to the cinema is a potential gamble nowadays, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel’s record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable he has pretty much given up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit, but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to this project I don’t know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed ‘superhero universe’ based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.

I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said ‘Let’s see just how **** this movie is’ as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin’s unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There’s something almost existential about this – if you don’t trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn’t dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.

In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there’s almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.

There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can’t be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it’s absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.

That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn’t seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that’s the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the ‘dolphin’ headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that’s because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it’s just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don’t think we’ll be missing much if they never happen.

Read Full Post »

Normally the news that the release of Peter Rabbit 2 has been delayed for months would count as unusually good news, but the circumstances, coupled to the fact that the new Bond and Fast and Furious films are also being put back by a considerable period of time (with other big releases no doubt to follow), kind of takes the shine off it. One wonders if the time will come when UK cinemas close entirely, either due to government decree or a complete lack of films to show (although there must be some intriguing possibilities for counter-programming opening up at the moment). I suppose one must do the best one can in the circumstances, for an eclectic range of films is still on offer, always assuming there isn’t a power cut in the cinema (this actually happened to me the other night; details to follow when we get around to watching the end of the interrupted movie).

Which brings us to Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which by any reasonable metric counts as a very peculiar film indeed: what I suppose we must describe as an Anglo-Germano-Austrian post-horror movie (yes, another one of those). There are things about this film which feel very familiar indeed, but the overall tone and posture of the piece are, well, challenging and unusual, or will be to most audiences, especially the ones most likely to be drawn to it.

The film opens, and much of it occurs in, the austere confines of a greenhouse attached to a scientific research facility. The people here are intent on breeding genetically-modified plants, with variable degrees of success. One of the most dedicated and passionate researchers is Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), who is going against the flow by attempting to create a plant which needs especially high levels of care and maintenance from its owner – some of her colleagues are doing the exact opposite, trying to breed plants which don’t need watering when you go on holiday. The pay-off, in the case of Alice’s flower, is that the plant releases chemicals promoting the happiness of the owner and ensuring a strong bond between the two of them.

As you can imagine, this is demanding work and Alice is devoted to it, ignoring the awkward advances of a colleague (Ben Whishaw) who has a bit of a thing for her. Virtually the only thing she allows to impinge on her dedication to the plant is her relationship with her son Joe (Kit Connor), who is in his early teens. As a special gift for him, Alice smuggles one of her plants out of the lab and gives it to him. They decide to call it Little Joe.

But then the Little Joes still in the greenhouse start producing large amounts of pollen – something they shouldn’t be doing, considering they have been engineered to be sterile. Other plants in the same facility wither and die, and Alice’s boss insists on a full examination of the Little Joes to see if they could be harmful or allergenic. Another colleague’s dog is exposed to the pollen and begins to behave very oddly indeed – the colleague (Kerry Fox) insists that the pollen ‘infects’ people and changes their behaviour, that the plants are trying to ensure their survival through other means now they can no longer reproduce in the conventional manner. Naturally Alice resists this idea entirely – the Little Joe is just a very unusual plant, that’s all. Of course, it transpires her genetic modification of the planet has entailed a few unauthorised short cuts, so she is invested in having it proven harmless for a number of reasons. But when Joe starts to behave strangely, she begins to wonder if there might not be some truth to her colleague’s wild accusations about Little Joe…

The involvement of BBC Films means, probably, that a substantial proportion of the British public can sort-of take pride in being a producer of Little Joe and thus ensuring the continuation of the proud tradition of the botanical horror-SF movie. The British pedigree in this sort of thing goes back a long way and includes some very impressive books and films – starting with The Day of the Triffids and quite possibly proceeding on to The Girl with All the Gifts. (For fairness’ sake I must also admit that Z-movies like Womaneater and the segment of Dr Terror with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine also qualify.)

On paper Little Joe does look like a fairly straightforward horror-SF film about a creepy plant with more to it than meets the eye. However, anyone turning up to it expecting that is probably heading for disappointment, for this is a rather more subtle and restrained movie than most of the other blooms in this particular flowerbed (is this metaphor overdoing it a bit? I’m not sure).

One thing you can definitely say is that this is clearly a movie which has been made with a very great deal of care and attention: a lot of thought has clearly gone into the composition and framing of every shot, with the camera gliding implacably past scenes and characters, seemingly completely detached and disinterested in them. There is a certain austerity to the film – the visuals are crisp and colourful, but it always feels cool, detached, and calculated, with very little sense of the organic about it.

This persists. The script (by Hausner and Geraldine Bajard) works brilliantly to establish the premise and then slowly track the development of the situation, as the influence of the flowers seems to grow stronger. Equally good is Beecham’s award-winning performance, with her trajectory from dispassionate sceptic to uneasy believer in Little Joe’s odd sway completely plausible. But it’s all done with almost too much restraint and understatement. There’s not so much tension as a sense of creeping unease and vague disquiet, which never quite resolves itself or reaches the expected moments of revelation or resolution (this is the main reason why I’d almost describe this as a post-horror movie, rather than a true member of the genre).

In other words, we never really get the money shot, but the film is still well-made enough to keep the attention, not least because of the performances. The film naturally touches on some interesting ideas, as well: quite apart from the whole issue of genetic modification and the possible consequences, there is also the question of chemical happiness – whatever else it’s doing, the Little Joe flowers do seem to be making people happy, so why do they seem so sinister? Needless to say there are shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, and perhaps even of Rosemary’s Baby.

I don’t think Little Joe is up to the standard of either of those, quite, but it is an impressively made film with some very good performances in it. Anyone expecting a traditional horror movie is likely to be disappointed, but viewers with an open mind will probably find a lot to appreciate.

Read Full Post »

I first started writing about films on the internet back in 2001, and at the end of that first year announced the list of films I was particularly looking forward to – one of them was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Well, it has taken somewhat longer than anticipated, but I am finally in a position to write about this movie. I must express my gratitude to Terry Gilliam for finally finishing it and getting it into cinemas, even with the disgracefully limited UK release it has eventually received – I could have ended up looking quite silly otherwise.

The travails of Gilliam’s Don Quixote have become legendary, helped by the release of Lost in La Mancha in 2002 – intended as a making-of film to go on the DVD, it ended up as the chronicle of a collapsing film shoot, as an already-chaotic production was sent into a terminal spin by scheduling problems, terrible weather, injured stars, and much more. It would have been enough to win The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a spot in the book The Greatest Movies Never Made – but, as I have previously noted, ‘never’ is a bold choice of words, and just as a few of these projects have finally crept out into the world, so Gilliam has finally finished this movie.

You can’t accuse The Man Who Killed Don Quixote of a lack of self-awareness, as the opening credits ruefully acknowledge the long and troubled history of the production (‘and now, after 25 years in the making, and unmaking’). This kind of playfulness continues on into the movie itself, where we encounter Toby (Adam Driver), a pretentious director surrounded by obsequious hangers-on, engaged in what looks like a troubled and chaotic production of a film of Don Quixote on location in Spain. Things are not going well, with abrasive crew-members, endless hold-ups, and a distinct lack of inspiration. The situation is not helped when Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko) in his care: she turns out to be much taken with Toby, and the director finds his amorous instincts over-riding his better judgement.

It all takes an odd turn, however, when a chance encounter with a gypsy selling various wares reunites Toby with a copy of the student film that made his name, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He realises he made the movie in the same area, a decade or so earlier, using local people in the key roles – an old shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce) as Quixote, and a bar-owner’s teenage daughter, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), as Dulcinea. But a brief visit to the locations of the movie reveal that it has had a less positive effect on the other participants: Angelica became fixated on becoming a famous film star, which led to her being sucked into a netherworld of crime and degradation, while Javier became convinced he really was Don Quixote and abandoned his old life entirely.

Various misunderstandings from Toby’s chaotic life lead to him being arrested by the police, but he is less than entirely delighted when the old man appears on horseback and ‘rescues’ him. The self-styled Quixote addresses Toby as Sancho Panza and declares that great deeds and adventures await the pair of them…

Don Quixote defeated Orson Welles long before Terry Gilliam ever attempted to film it, and entire films have been made recounting the tortuous progress of Gilliam’s version to the screen: two of the director’s choices to play Quixote died while the film was trapped in development hell, while other cast members have shifted roles in the meantime (Jonathan Pryce was originally supposed to be playing an entirely different part). Perhaps most significantly of all, the script of the movie has been significantly rewritten since Lost in La Mancha came out: I was expecting there to be an explicitly fantastical, time-travel element to this movie, but it has been removed.

In its place is something more subtle and unexpected, and rather more in keeping with Cervantes: the novel was published in two parts, many years apart, and the second volume opens with Quixote and Sancho rather nonplussed by the fame they have acquired as notable literary figures (not to mention outraged by an unauthorised sequel penned by other hands). The Man Who Killed Don Quixote manages a degree of the same kind of witty self-referentiality – nearly all the characters in it are aware of the book, and intent upon acting various bits of it out for different reasons. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is also a remarkably faithful adaptation of a novel which doesn’t easily lend itself to other media.

You could argue this is a double-edged sword, for Don Quixote is a sprawling, episodic, picaresque, apparently undisciplined book, and Gilliam’s film is arguably many of these things too. The first act in particular feels slow and rambling, the story unsure of which way to go. But once Toby and Quixote set off on their peculiar exploits, it lifts enormously, and it slowly becomes clear that in addition to being an adaptation of Cervantes, this is also an engaging and affecting comedy-drama about Toby’s own personal redemption and discovery of his own inner knight-errant.

Adam Driver wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice for this particular role, but he carries it off well: this is a proper leading role, which he does full justice too. While I would deeply love the chance to peep into the parallel quantum realms where this film was made five or ten years ago and John Hurt or Michael Palin played Quixote, I honestly can’t imagine either of them doing a better job in the role than Jonathan Pryce does here – Pryce is enjoying one of those periods of late bloom that actors sometimes have, and this is one of his best performances.

Of course, Pryce and Gilliam have worked together a number of times in the past, and I first became aware of the actor following his lead performance in Brazil. His presence here isn’t the only thing that recalls some of the classic Gilliam movies of the past: there is the way in which the present day and the medieval collide with each other (mostly figuratively, here), and also the film’s focus on the conflict between imagination and dreams on the one hand, and dreary old reality on the other. You’re never in doubt as to which side the director is on; you could probably argue that Terry Gilliam’s whole career has been building up to doing a film of Don Quixote.

I’m not sure this is quite as consistent or as impressive as some of Gilliam’s other feats of cinematic legerdemain, but neither is it far from the standard of his best films, and there are moments which are as accomplished as anything he’s done in the past. It feels like a minor miracle that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been finished at all; the fact it is as good as it is simply adds to the sense that it is something we should be grateful for. (It’s just a shame that – true to form – the film is still entangled in legal difficulties affecting its release and distribution, which is presumably why it has barely appeared in British cinemas.) A heart-warming achievement for Terry Gilliam, anyway, and a treat for those of us who’ve loved his films for years.

Read Full Post »

If an alien or someone fresh out of long-term hibernation were to cast an eye across the cinematic landscape and try to guess who amongst the actors currently working was, by some metrics, the most successful movie star in history, the chances are they would go for one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks)  – which would be a reasonable guess, but not quite right. In the end it all comes down to how you measure these things, and many people would suggest that Samuel L Jackson’s string of cameo appearances in huge movies from the Marvel and stellar conflict franchises, not to mention Jurassic Park (and many others), puts him on the top spot, but others reckon it to be someone who has a rather lower profile these days: Harrison Ford.

Now, as with all right-thinking men of a certain age, I loved Harrison Ford when I was younger – or, more accurately, I loved the movies he made as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and those movies made me go on to watch many other Ford performances in films like Witness and The Fugitive. At this point I was all set to do my usual thing of bemoaning the fact I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with Ford’s more recent movies – but then I checked out his recent filmography and it turns out that I have seen every film he’s made in the last seven years, and only missed eight of the twenty he’s appeared in this century. He just doesn’t crank ’em out any more.

How he picks his projects I’m not entirely sure (though I imagine an enormous paycheck was a factor in his last couple of appearances for Lucasfilm), but it does seem that he still has proper movie star clout and consequently draws the salary one would expect. Chris Sanders’ new version of The Call of the Wild has Ford’s name above the title, and he is prominent on the poster – though in some of the advertising he is definitely playing second banana to a dog.

Then again, this is par for the course with The Call of the Wild, which – again, according to some of the advertising – is based on ‘a classic family adventure’. I’m not sure what Jack London, who wrote the original novel, would have made of that. I’m not entirely sure I ever actually finished reading The Call of the Wild – I can only imagine I bought a copy as background material while planning out a Werewolf RPG chronicle – but I don’t recall it being particularly gentle or family friendly. The new movie rectifies this, of course.

This is the story of Buck, an enormous St Bernard-Scotch Collie dog who as the film begins is living a pampered existence in California in the late 1890s, as the pet of the local judge (Bradley Whitford, briefly appearing). He is good natured but disruptive, and generally a bit of a softie. But Buck’s life changes when he is dognapped and sent north to Alaska, where the Gold Rush is in progress and dogs are required for all sorts of jobs. Here he briefly encounters grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable prospector John Thornton (played by grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable actor Harrison Ford), before being bought by a couple (played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee) running a dog-sled mail route. Can Buck find a place for himself in the savage north? Will destiny bring him and Thornton back together (hint: yes)? Can he resist the call of the wild (hint: no)?

I imagine the thinking behind the new version of Call of the Wild (this is a much-filmed tale) was basically that the CGI version of The Jungle Book was based on a classic novel and made a ton of money, and so a CGI-heavy version of London’s book was likely to do the business too, especially with the cachet brought to it by the presence of a superstar like Harrison Ford. It all makes sense when you put it like that, but the fact remains that Call of the Wild looks likely to lose the studio (it is the first film released by the newly-rechristened ‘Twentieth Century Studio’) a nine-digit sum. Maybe people will only go to see Ford playing either of the characters who made him famous, or maybe people don’t have the same kind of warm associations with London that they had with the Disney take on Kipling. Either way it’s a shame, as this is a solid movie that I found to be rather more satisfying than I expected.

Of course, it is a movie of the modern day, with all that goes with this both narratively and technically. The most striking thing about it is that much of the time the dogs and other animals in the film are all CGI, which I suppose cuts down on trainers’ fees but also lifts the whole thing into the realm of being effectively part-animated. Buck is ‘played’ (through the wonders of mo-cap) by Terry Notary, who I suppose is the American answer to Andy Serkis: other mo-cap roles include parts in the last King Kong film, along with the Hobbit trilogy, the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and (almost inevitably) a bunch of films for Marvel. You really have to get on board with the fact this is a CGI/mo-cap heavy film, or it will just do your head in; it mostly does look indefinably fake, but it’s a pretty enough fake to be tolerable.

Needless to say, the Progressive Action Committee have also made an appearance in the course of the production and various diversity quotas have been met, with characters given racial and gender makeovers. For once I’m not too inclined to grumble about this, because the actors employed as a result – Omar Sy and Cara Gee – are both very able and engaging. The role of bad guy has been taken from some native Americans and – of course – given to a privileged white man (played by Dan Stevens).

The other main departure from London is that the film has been softened up quite considerably – there’s a lot of whipping and clubbing and biting and clawing, if memory serves, and the story doesn’t shy away from some brutal realities. The hard edges have been sanded down quite considerably for the screen, though, with the result that the film rests comfortably in the PG bracket. It is mawkish and sentimental in places, but the moment I was dreading, when the dogs would start talking to each other, never arrives. The animals are allowed to be animals to this extent at least.

And the humans are allowed to do some decent acting, too. Whatever else you want to say, the film does seem to lift considerably whenever Harrison Ford comes on the screen. He’s never been the most extravagant of performers, but his ability to give heart and heft to unlikely material remains undiminished and it is a pleasure to watch his slightly earnest performance in this movie (I should say the movie itself is determinedly earnest and somewhat old-fashioned in its storytelling). For a while I was wondering why this movie was making me feel quite so nostalgic, but the fact it features Ford partnering up with a co-star who is enormous, hairy, and doesn’t have any dialogue should have tipped me off. Eventually I remembered the Russian word for dog is sowbacca and it all fell into place.

Let’s be clear: The Call of the Wild isn’t going to rock your world or give you a thrilling night at the movies you will never forget. But it is a well-made movie in its way, which is clearly trying hard to be respectful to the source material, and in the end it is very engaging and satisfying entertainment. And it’s always good to see Harrison Ford in a movie. Hopefully it will find some kind of audience.

Read Full Post »

Every now and then I do like to go to the cinema with my parents, partly because I think it’s nice to share one’s interests, also because I imagine it’s a bracing experience for them to watch the latest Fast and Furious or whatever. Of course, we also go to see things that they are genuinely looking forward to: last autumn we went to see the Downton Abbey movie, and just recently we saw Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (This movie has been slightly irksomely styled as Emma. in some places, with the final . apparently indicating that this is a – wait for it – period piece. I think we should put a stop to this sort of thing.)

I don’t want to engage in lazy generalisations any more than is absolutely necessary, but watching the new Emma I found myself sort of flashing back to the last time I was out with them. Maybe films aimed at – how can I put this delicately? – a more seasoned audience have this much in common, by which I mean that both Downton and Emma seemed to me to have a definite ‘comfort viewing’ quality to them. It is almost obligatory for the makers of new films based on famous, well-loved books to announce they have found a bold, exciting new approach to the material resulting in a movie the like of which has never been seen before. Not only does this generally turn out to be palpably untrue, but it would be a bad idea even if they could somehow manage it: the kind of person who goes to see a movie based on a Jane Austen novel is not, I would suggest, looking to have a startling, world-upending experience. They want to see something with pleasant-looking people attending balls, riding around in carriages, and swanking about in top hats and Empire-line frocks, a wedding at the end and no bad language.

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is unlikely to outrage the sensibilities of its target audience, regardless of what the marketing department has come up with. Anya Taylor-Joy, who up to now has mainly distinguished herself by appearing in horror movies, plays Austen’s heroine on this occasion. Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy, comely, and brainy daughter of an eccentric country gentleman (Bill Nighy), who – finding herself spared most of the usual imperatives compelling young women to seek an advantageous marriage – is quite content to stay single and amuse herself. This usually takes the form of trying to organise suitable matches and otherwise orchestrate the lives of her friends and neighbours. Most of them, such as her new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), are sufficiently dazzled by Emma’s beauty and wit to go along with this, even when it causes them some personal inconvenience. The only person who seems to be less than entirely thrilled by Emma is her neighbour and close acquaintance Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn).

However, the social scene in the area becomes rather more complicated, with the arrival of a startling number of eligible young bachelors and nubile young ladies, and Emma begins to find herself on the verge of actually doubting her own cleverness and understanding of everything that’s going on around her. Could an opportunity for learning and personal growth, and maybe even romance, be on the cards?

Well, whatever else you might want to say about Emma, it is certainly a very agreeable film to look upon: the compositions are lovely, and the costumes and sets are also of a very high standard. Given all this and the period setting, I found myself thinking ‘There’s almost something of Barry Lyndon about this’ – the crucial difference being that there is no sense of the film’s visual style being part of a thought-through creative vision.

My understanding is that Autumn de Wilde has come to film directing quite late in life, and that prior to this (her debut film) she has paid the bills by working as a photographer. She certainly does seem to have that facility with the visual image that I mentioned earlier, but hasn’t quite yet acquired an accompanying sense of how to establish character and tell a story. There is a fair deal of plot to contend with here, and various Messrs. Knightley, Elton, Churchill and Martin to keep track of: I would suggest it is sometimes not always as easy to follow the story as it ideally could be. Nor does the story really to spring to life: it just sort of ambles along, not disagreeably, for a couple of hours.

That said, it should still probably do quite well for itself, as it does contain the appropriate quotients of top hats, Empire-line dresses, balls, carriages, etc. It is absolutely ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a standard-issue Jane Austen movie, and whether or not that is a problem is really up to the individual viewer to decide. The only surprising creative choice I could discern is the use of traditional folk music on the soundtrack – I liked this a lot, but it has an earthy, genuine quality entirely at odds with the carefully-managed visual style of the rest of the movie. If nothing else it does present Johnny Flynn, a brilliant musician in addition to being an able actor, with an opportunity to sing as well as play the lead. (Flynn gives a very decent performance, along with most of the rest of the cast, but if you ask me he would be a slightly more obvious choice to play Heathcliff than a polished Austen love interest. Still, I suppose this is a bit of a step up for him.)

I found it very hard to warm up to Emma – it’s an agreeable film, obviously, and decently made, and no doubt it should do very well with the audience it has been made for. But it feels strangely inert and unengaging; it’s not particularly funny, nor is it lushly and sweepingly romantic – it honestly does feel like the story was very secondary to the look of the thing. It does look good, but a satisfying movie needs more.

Read Full Post »

I used to get a little bit exercised by people choosing inappropriate titles for their movies. I don’t just mean bad movies using good names, just titles which seem… not quite right for the movie. Back in 2011, Paddy Considine released a film called Tyrannosaur, which is a perfectly good title for a film featuring a carnivorous theropod on the rampage. Attaching it to an (admittedly very good) downbeat naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of male rage struck me as a bit of a waste, to be honest.

When I first started hearing people talking about a movie called Parasite, I was pretty sure I knew what they were on about: I have vague memories of the film in question, which was directed by low-budget maestro Charles Band, released in 1982 and features Demi Moore in an early role. Suffice to say there is a lot of icky body horror and slimy things with teeth infesting various secondary members of the cast. This is exactly what I would expect from a movie called Parasite.

Of course, we now live in a world where – as is occasionally the case with films with mononymic titles – anyone wanting to watch Demi Moore just starting out had best take care, as there is now another, rather better-known film called Parasite. Not that confusion is particularly likely, of course: the 1982 movie has an 11% rating on a solanaceous review aggregation site, and won no awards whatsover, while the new one, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is currently scoring 99%, in addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards – the first film to win both in 65 years, and the first film made in a foreign language to win the big prize at the Oscars.

This is the kind of acclaim that often leads to impossibly high expectations, but on the other hand it does work a treat in getting a slightly arty-looking subtitled film a major release – I note that, in the UK at least, Parasite didn’t start to appear in some multiplexes until after it won the Oscar. Certainly, to begin with it bears a passing resemblance to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, another acclaimed Asian movie which didn’t get a major UK release.

To begin with, we are in the company of the Kim family, a penurious Seoul family reduced to living in a basement and folding disposable pizza boxes to scrape a living. Patriarch of this unprepossessing mob is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), a moderately successful hammer thrower now gone to seed, his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The Kims are living so close to the edge that their neighbour putting a password on her wifi constitutes a significant problem for them.

However, this all changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min finds him a job giving English lessons to the daughter of the wealthy Park family – Min has a mind to woo her once he gets back from a trip abroad, and has thus recommended Ki-woo as someone from such a poverty-stricken background can’t possibly be a romantic rival to him. He also gives the Kims a lucky rock, which will supposedly bring them good fortune. ‘Wow, it’s so metaphorical!’ cries a delighted Ki-woo, in one of the script’s many droll touches. Ki-woo duly passes muster with the slightly dippy mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) of the Park family.

What rapidly becomes apparent is that this is the sort of opportunity the Kims have clearly been waiting for for quite some time. With the speed and ferocity of a burrowing maggot, they waste no time in inserting themselves into the Parks’ lovely home: Ki-woo spots that his new employers’ hyperactive younger child likes drawing, and thus introduces Ki-jeong as a potential art therapist for the lad. The sacking of the family servants is ingeniously contrived, creating vacancies that the two senior Kims can fill. Soon the whole family is cheerfully soaking the Parks for whatever they can get, with their hosts blissfully unaware even of the fact they are unwittingly employing four members of the same family. The Kims begin to have dreams of a better life and a better future – because what could possibly go wrong…?

Needless to say, something goes wrong, but the volta that occurs halfway through Parasite is so startling and genuinely unpredictable that one would have to be a real cad to give more than a few hints as to what goes on in the second half of the film. Needless to say, class tensions bubble to the surface, there’s an epically unsuccessful birthday party, the issue of body odour proves unexpectedly significant to the plot and the lucky rock proves to be quite unlucky, for one character at least.

So, this isn’t really a horror movie, but if it is an art-house movie it’s only because of the subtitles (‘the one-inch-tall barrier’, as the director so aptly put it). This is really no more ‘arty’ than a film by Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick, unless by arty you mean made with tremendous imagination and skill. I didn’t see Snowpiercer (someone gave it to me on a hard drive, which then went pop before I could watch it) and my admiration for his giant pig film was qualified at best, but this is a terrific movie.

Obviously, this is a film with things to say about serious and universal themes: the awkward relationship between wealth and power, and class consciousness, most obviously (you could draw a definite thematic parallel between Parasite and The Time Machine, if you really wanted to). Not that the title is without a degree of ambiguity – it’s clear that both families need each other in order to function (so perhaps Symbiosis would be just as apt a title). You could also argue that the film takes the fact that servants and lower-class people often seem to be invisible to the rich and powerful and makes it one of the central metaphors of the movie. There is a lot going on here.

Nevertheless, the denseness of the film’s ideas never get in the way of its entertainment value, or its achievement as a piece of cinema. Almost from the start you are swept along, as the Kims put their plan into motion with a gleeful ruthlessness – they are such an agreeable bunch, and Mrs Park in particular is so useless, that you can’t help but want them to get away with it, even though what they are up to is deeply morally questionable. Towards the end of the film the comedic elements inevitably fall away, however, and the film becomes darker and more complex, but the shift is as impeccably handled as the rest of it.

Parasite has pretty much everything one could hope for from a movie, and it is fully deserving of all its praise and accollades. Hopefully the one-inch-tall barrier will not keep too many people from watching it, for this is a film which balances serious themes with superb storytelling skill and the result is a film which is compellingly watchable from start to finish. Proof that the Academy Awards do sometimes get things right.

Read Full Post »

What do you get when you put an IT expert, a rocket scientist, an electrical engineer and an unemployed God-only-knows-what into a darkened room together? Either experimental theatre, or – as was indeed the case on the particular occasion I am thinking of – a night out to the cinema for my gaming group. This, I should make clear, is a fairly unusual occurrence: when we get together, it’s usually to play games, as the fact we are a gaming group might lead one to suspect. Our only previous outings of this nature were to see the two most recent stellar conflict movies, and this was simply because it is our shared love of the stellar conflict franchise (and associated entertainments) that originally brought us together. Needless to say, there was a similar rationale behind our decision to go and see William Eubank’s Underwater.

That said, I knew literally nothing about this movie beyond the title and the fact that it contained one particular story element, and was half-expecting something very low-budget and rough around the edges. It was therefore a fairly pleasant surprise when the opening credits indicated that leading the film would be Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, for these are both classy performers, and Stewart, in particular, has acquired that talent of always being impressively watchable even when the film she’s appearing in is not really up to much.

Underwater is very much part of Stewart’s return to mainstream entertainment. She (still with basically the same haircut as in Seberg) plays Norah Price, an engineer working at a deep-sea drilling installation at some time in the fairly near future. Pretty much the first thing that happens in the movie is that the station suffers a catastrophic breach, killing most of the crew. Stewart survives, obviously, and together with a couple of fellow survivors she makes her way to the command deck where she encounters the captain of the project (Cassel) and a few others. Something has gone horribly wrong – but what, exactly? It’s not at all clear. In any case, survival must come first and Cassel has a plan: all the escape pods in the station itself have gone, but if they descend through the wreckage of the rig to the ocean bed and then trek across it to what’s left of the drillhead, they may yet find the means to return to the surface alive.

This, naturally, involves clumping around in damaged deep-sea suits under pressures that would almost instantly reduce any normal person to mulch (and, this being a horror movie, that indeed happens to someone). But it gets better, by which I mean worse. Hostile and grotesque new forms of marine life have apparently been stirred up and are infesting the area around the station and the drill site. What exactly has the drilling project woken up…?

The first thing one should say about Underwater (not the most imaginative title, but accurate) is that it is a solid genre movie that understands and respects the conventions of the kind of film it clearly is, which is to say it is a horror-SF film. (By this I mean that you can guess more-or-less in which order the cast are going to get killed, you see progressively more of the monsters as the thing goes on, and there are various sequences in which Stewart and the other female cast member, Jessica Henwick, run around in their underwear.) However, this itself almost constitutes a surprise given William Eubank’s CV: he also made (though I had forgotten this) The Signal, an impressive piece of slightly experimental pure SF, stronger on visuals than strict narrative coherence. This film boasts the same kind of solid production values and impressive special effects, but it’s the kind of movie which you can’t imagine had its origins in anything other than the director watching a film they really enjoyed as a teenager and really wanting to do their own version of it.

Even the brief capsule synopsis I have provided is possibly quite indicative of just how derivative Underwater feels: the grimy, industrial aesthetic and some elements of creature design instantly recall Alien; there’s a sequence strongly reminiscent of Gravity; you can point out elements which have been pinched from everything from The Abyss to the 2014 Godzilla to DeepStar Six. New ground is not really being broken here.

Now, obviously I am not suggesting that derivative films are necessarily bad ones; you could possibly argue that genre movies are by definition to some extent derivative. Underwater indicates from the start what kind of film it’s going to be and then proceeds to be that film. It’s a solid, meat and potatoes piece of work: I can easily imagine it making regular appearances in the 9pm slot on the Horror Channel a few years from now, but possibly the only thing it will really be remembered for is the fact it was the very last film put out under the 20th Century Fox marque before Disney renamed the studio (sic transit gloria Mickey).

Well… that said, there is of course still the question of just why this film lured four veteran role-playing gamers out to the late night showing which is the only one this film managed to secure. Here I am a little reluctant to go into much detail, although talking about ‘spoilers’ in this instance may well be pushing it: I’m not so much talking about plot points as a kind of massive in-joke or Easter egg. You’ll either get it or you won’t; my understanding is that it wasn’t in the original script and even the film’s producers weren’t really informed about it. Oh, well: word of the ‘twist’ in Underwater has spread like wildfire through certain sections of the internet so I expect most people who would be interested will already know. Nevertheless, ‘spoilers’ will follow the poster.

This is a horror movie; we are currently playing the world’s best-known and best-loved horror role-playing game, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft (there is perhaps something slightly ironic about the fact that Kristen Stewart’s famous ex is also appearing in a distinctly Lovecraftian horror movie at the moment). Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work will have a very good idea of just why it is a very bad idea to go poking around in the deepest, darkest parts of the Pacific Ocean, and just what it is you are likely to disturb. If you know your HPL you will now have a very good idea of who or what turns up in the third act of Underwater, and I have to say the realisation is pretty good (although everyone probably has their own idea of exactly what Lovecraft’s Dreamer actually looks like). Seeing ol’ squidhead on the big screen is certainly a memorable moment, but on the other hand it isn’t much more than the in-joke or Easter egg I mentioned earlier. I’m a bit of a purist about Lovecraftian horror (couldn’t you guess) and I wouldn’t really call this a Lovecraftian movie per se: the decision to include one of Lovecraft’s monsters was made during post-production, so it’s not like it’s strongly present in the script. Still, maybe if this film does good business, coupled to the decent notices received by Richard Stanley’s adaptation of the Lovecraft story Color Out of Space, there may be more interest in doing this kind of thing properly – maybe even Guillermo del Toro’s long-mooted crack at At the Mountains of Madness. A man can dream (of weird, cyclopean architecture, with hideous, non-Euclidean angles, probably). As it is, this is a decent SF-horror film with a fun and quite cool treat for the initiated.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »