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There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.

 

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Film-making, in the Hollywood mainstream at least, is often a kind of Faustian bargain – on the one hand, you have a writer and/or director, who have a story they really feel has value and deserves to reach the widest possible audience, while on the other there’s the studio who are actually paying for the thing, who want as healthy a return as possible on their investment. Advertising and suchlike tends to focus on the former. Occasionally, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid the impression that a film has only been made for the purposes of raking in the dough.

I think it’s this problem that besets the last couple of ‘original’ Star Trek movies. It would be almost impossible for the makers to argue that these are stories they were burning to tell about these characters, because by this point they’d already made about 180 TV episodes and movies featuring them. It’s not really a cash-in, but it is an example of a reliable product being put out for an established audience. Sound business, probably, but not exactly exciting or likely to thrill mind and spirit in the way that genuine SF is surely supposed to – I think it was Kim Newman who observed that by the late 1990s Star Trek had become the genre equivalent of McDonald’s.

Certainly, the sense of being a movie without a particularly pressing reason to exist is one of the problems afflicting Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: Insurrection, originally released in 1998. With the original series crossover movie out of the way, along with the Borg rematch action film, the big question was obviously that of what to do next with the Next Generation crew – and you do get a sense that they never really found a particularly compelling answer to it.

The year is 2375 and the Enterprise is being kept very busy with diplomatic and courier assignments – enough to make Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) lament the loss of their role as explorers (not that they ever seemed to do much of that, even in the TV show). However, a crisis demands his attention when Data (Brent Spiner), who has been assigned to a joint mission with a dubious gang of aliens called the So’na, seemingly goes rogue and starts attacking Federation personnel and their allies.

Investigating, Picard and the others discover a remote, secluded planet, inhabited by the thoroughly peaceful and decent Ba’ku people, who have rejected most of the trappings of technological civilisation. Everyone there is living the rustic idyll, and living it for a very long time, because the unique properties of the planet’s rings vastly boost physical wellbeing and longevity (something which begins to have odd effects on several members of Picard’s staff, too). The So’na have persuaded the Federation to assist them in exploiting this effect for the benefit of the wider galaxy, even if this means forcibly moving the Ba’ku without their consent and rendering their planet a lifeless cinder. Picard, being Picard, naturally has strong views about this sort of thing, but finds himself at odds with Starfleet Command, and compelled by his conscience to take up arms against his own people…

Well, not exactly: people who are allies of his own people, maybe, and allies who are established from the very start to be a very shady bunch. As insurrections go, the insurrection in Star Trek: Insurrection is not the most shocking insurrection in the history of insurrections, and it’s fairly clear the film’s only called Star Trek: Insurrection because Paramount wasn’t keen on titles like Star Trek: Stardust, Star Trek: Forever and Star Trek: Apostasy.

Actually, you can see where the blundering paw of studio interference has had an effect on this movie in a number of places – Paramount’s instinct with the Trek movies, following Star Trek IV at least, always seemed to be to go light whenever possible, in the hope of attracting a wider audience. So it is here, as Picard and the others do all kinds of unexpected and often slightly cringeworthy things: Data turns into an inflatable lifejacket. Riker and Troi hop in the hot tub together so she can shave off his beard. Troi and Dr Crusher discuss their resurgent ‘boobs’ (cringey this may be, but it’s also the only significant contribution Gates McFadden gets to make to the movie). Picard puts a beaded seat cover on his head, sings a Gilbert and Sullivan number, and dances the mambo across his quarters (not all at the same time, thank God). Some of this verges on the silly.

It’s a particular problem because you can see that the script (by Michael Piller, in many ways the principal architect of Star Trek storytelling in the 1990s and early 2000s) is trying to strike a much more thoughtful and mature tone. Of course, the film is ultimately once again about allowing Patrick Stewart to employ his massive gravitas (and, by extension, Picard’s colossal moral authority) by planting himself like a tree in the path of incipient injustice and doing what’s right, and Stewart (naturally) makes it work; he always does. But the film’s mechanism for facilitating this is to present a tarnished, compromised Federation, far from the utopian state it had traditionally been presented as for much of Trek prior to this point.

This is an interesting idea and does allow the film to plug into some of what had been going on in other bits of the franchise in the preceding couple of years – following various maulings in the war with the Dominion in DS9, and the Borg invasion in the previous movie, it’s kind of logical for the Federation to be on the back foot and losing touch with its ideals (apparently, the suggestion is that this movie is set concurrently with the final episode of DS9, hence the mention of peace negotiations with the Dominion – Worf just turns up like he never left, of course).

And it is nice to have another Trek movie focusing a little more on big moral themes and philosophical ideas, because this is a crucial element of the TV show that often never makes it into the movies in one piece. There isn’t the greatest of depth to it on this occasion – the Ba’ku are blandly, tediously nice, while the So’na are very obviously bad guys – but at least it’s there.

In fact, the film seems to have made a real effort to be thoroughgoingly nice in pretty much every department. Jonathan Frakes works very hard to fill the opening sequence with lyrical, pastoral imagery, which works well, but it establishes a tone which really lingers throughout the film. Even once Picard launches his ‘insurrection’, everything remains surprisingly mild and good-natured, there isn’t a sharp edge or genuinely tough decision in sight.

Still, it is solidly plotted and structured, and the inevitable action-movie climax is competently assembled (Piller takes no chances and makes sure the script favours Picard, Data, and Worf, the most popular characters). The thing is that, by the end, we are really back where we started, nothing has really changed (except maybe that we have become reacquainted with Riker’s chin): no-one has had a life-altering experience, everyone is ready for next week’s episode. You would have to be hyper-critical to say that Star Trek: Insurrection is an actively bad movie, but it’s not really stretching things too much to say that it frequently doesn’t feel much like an actual movie at all.

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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 girlfriend. 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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Something notable happened to the perception of SF and fantasy in the UK in the middle of the 1980s: when I was very young, SF programmes like Star Trek were on in prime time on one of the main channels – this is the main reason why original Trek acquired its cultural traction in the UK. On the BBC at least, there seemed to be relatively little stigma attached to the science fiction genre prior to the late 80s – the network produced Survivors, Blake’s 7, and Star Cops all in the preceding ten years or so.

After this, however, the BBC largely stopped making SF, and the imported programmes that it did broadcast usually turned up on its minority network in an early-evening slot. This happened to re-runs of The Invaders and the Gerry Anderson programmes throughout the 1990s, and also to every episode of Star Trek the BBC has broadcast since about 1986. (The Beeb has never had the rights to Enterprise, but at one point in 1997 they were showing Voyager on Sundays, Next Generation on Wednesdays, Deep Space Nine on Thursdays, and the original series on Fridays.)

As you can see, in the UK all Star Trek was treated equally – as disposable cult-fodder – and so we never got the sense that some iterations of the show might be more popular or successful than others. Certainly, I was a little surprised last year to discover that most general-audience histories of the franchise focus primarily on the original series and TNG, treating the last three shows as being rather obscure and only of minority interest. Still, at least it explains why there was never serious talk of doing DS9 or Voyager movies, and also the slightly odd, semi-detached relationship between the Next Gen movies and the TV shows that were in production simultaneously with them.

This is most noticeable in Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes and released in 1996, when there were two other TV series running which were ostensibly set contemporaneously with the movie. I remember going to see this movie on its opening night with a group of other people, some of whom knew their Trek, some of whom didn’t, and I seem to recall we all had a pretty good time: we concluded it worked well as both a Trek film and an SF action movie. These days – well, sitting down and watching the movie more thoughtfully, I’m inclined to be just a little more critical.

I suppose some of this is simply down to my unreasonable fondness for sprawling fictional universes and my expectation that they try to stay coherent and plausible, on their own terms at least. Certainly there are very sound real-world reasons why the Enterprise has retained the virtually the exact same senior staff for nine years, but from an in-universe perspective one is forced to wonder why the Federation flagship is crewed by people whose careers seem to have ground to a halt. (At least Worf (Michael Dorn) seems to be getting on with his life, although this does require the movie to ‘spring’ him from Deep Space Nine in rather the same way the rest of the A-Team were frequently required to extract Murdock from a mental hospital.)

In the same way, the opening of the movie does feel a little peculiar. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang are safely ensconced aboard the shiny new Enterprise-E, when alarming news comes in of a new attack by the Borg (an implacable cyborg menace to civilisation as we know it, who may or may not be knock-offs of the Cybermen from Doctor Who). Picard has history with the Borg, which forms the basis of his arc in the movie – but this also means Starfleet consider him a bit suspect, so the ship is packed off to the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the havoc wreaked by the Borg incursion.

Quite apart from the very rum decision-making on the part of the Admiralty – if Picard is considered likely to go fuzzy round the edges in a pressure situation, what is he doing commanding the flagship of the fleet? – and the fact that this bit of script is obviously just here to give the captain a big hero moment where he decides to disobey orders and go to the aid of the fleet, doesn’t the Federation have more pressing concerns than the Romulans at this point in time? Pointedly not mentioned at all is the ongoing cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, which was the basis of DS9 episodes around this time. Which in turn leads one to wonder what the Enterprise-E was doing throughout the Dominion War. It is almost as if the movies and TV shows operated in slightly parallel universes, rather in the same way as Marvel’s movies and TV shows do at the moment.

Well, anyway. Picard and the Enterprise, along with the rest of the fleet, manage to destroy the invading Borg cube by cunningly, um, shooting at it a lot, but not before it disgorges a Borg sphere (big on geometrical designs, these Borg) which promptly disappears back in time. Realising the Borg are planning on conquering Earth in the past (no respecters of temporal integrity, either), it’s up to Picard and the others to follow them and save history.

They find the Borg have gone back to 2063 and are trying to avert Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (hence the title), which was triggered by the first flight of Zefram Cochrane’s prototype warp-drive ship. (Cochrane is played by James Cromwell, at the time most famous as the dancing farmer from Babe.) Fixing the prototype and getting a reluctant Cochrane to stay off the sauce long enough to fulfil his destiny is tricky enough, but somehow the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise, and the crew also have to battle to stop them from taking over the ship…

We shall skip over the nagging questions of why it is that the Borg don’t just travel back to 2063 near their home planet and make the whole journey to Earth in the past, thus avoiding Starfleet’s response entirely, and the convenient way in which they establish a foothold on the Enterprise so easily, and think about more general matters. You can kind of see the thinking that went into the general shape of this movie – I think everyone assumed that with the original series crossover movie done and dusted, the next one would concern itself with Round Two between the Enterprise and the Borg, while after the success of Star Trek IV and many other time-travel episodes of Trek, it’s understandable that the studio should want a film built around that sort of premise.

But having said that, this is (as far as I can remember) pretty much unique in being a mass-audience SF movie in which characters time-travel from one made-up future world to another (as opposed to something recognisable as the present day, or a point in history). This is not necessarily a terrible choice, but it is a peculiar one – I’m reminded of the current discussion of ‘incorrect’ song writing. If the concept has any validity, then I would suggest that Star Trek: First Contact has touches of incorrect scriptwriting about it. (Earlier drafts of the story went by the title Star Trek: Renaissance and saw the Borg going back in time to assimilate Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Italy, but this more ‘correct’ idea was apparently vetoed by Patrick Stewart, who refused to wear tights in a movie.)

Once you get past the byzantine complexities of Star Trek continuity and the slight oddness of the premise, this is an undeniably solid movie, and certainly the best of the Next Gen films. Alien invasion movies were back in fashion in 1996, most notably in the form of the all-conquering Independence Day, and this is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if it can’t quite match Roland Emmerich’s epic roller-coaster for thrills, scale, or sheer entertainment value – something of that slightly staid and worthy Next Gen sensibility persists throughout.

Then again, the moves away from the Hollywood SF movie formula do provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The business on Earth with Cochrane provides a good-natured change of pace when set against the rather grimmer goings-on on the ship, the obscurely kinky scenes between Data (Brent Spiner) and the Queen of the Borg (Alice Krige) are distractingly odd, and all the various space battles and ray gun fights are well-mounted. But the heft of the film comes from Patrick Stewart, and Picard’s struggle to overcome his own rage and desire for vengeance against the Borg. The moments you remember are Picard ferociously tommy-gunning Borg drones while howling in fury, accusing Worf of cowardice for not being willing to fight to the death, lashing out in anger when confronted by his own irrationality and helplessness. All credit due to Patrick Stewart, of course (and also to Michael Dorn, whose ability to create memorable character moments from the slightest material is almost miraculous) – but this is also interesting in the wider context of Star Trek as a whole.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity, inasmuch as it became a defining feature of the Star Trek he was involved in during the final years of his life, was that human beings were somehow perfectible, and that the people of the Federation had moved on beyond their recognisable human hang-ups. Writers on TNG came to call this notion ‘the Roddenberry box’ as it limited the possibilities of interpersonal drama so much – any script built around the idea of conflict between the regulars got spiked, for example. And yet First Contact seems to be commenting on this idea in a manner which I’m not at all sure the Great Bird would have been happy with – never mind the fact that Picard has clearly been left significantly damaged by his previous experiences with the Borg, the film presents Cochrane, architect of the bright future which the Federation will come to exemplify, as a rather ambiguous character – overly fond of a drink, motivated by self-interest, unwilling to face up to responsibility. Is the whole notion of perfectible humanity built on rather shaky foundations? The movie is wise enough not to go too far with this.

It adds a welcome, if subtle piece of heft to what is otherwise much more of a straightforward action movie than most of the other good Star Trek films. The tendency of Star Trek films to turn into action movies has been bewailed by others in the past, not just me, but if you’re going to turn Star Trek into an action movie it should at least be a good one, with some interesting ideas and strong characterisation still somewhere in the mix. Judged by this standard, First Contact is certainly a success, if not quite up to the standard of the very best films in the franchise.

 

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I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonably standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that to cast one actor as Spider-Man is a sound commercial decision, to cast a second might be seen as a little questionable, but to give three people the part in the space of only about fifteen years is arguably labouring the issue. And yet here we are, with another ingenue web-slinger in the form of Tom Holland, starring in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yup, it’s yet another comic-book movie, but try to keep your fatigue at bay, for this one has a number of points of interest.

The Spider-Man rights are considered to be such a sure-fire guarantee to make money that the $709 million made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 was somehow decided to be a bit of a disappointment. Holder of said rights, Sony, decreed that better must be done, and – in a move that brought wild excitement to many people who should arguably be old enough to know better – re-opened negotiations with Marvel, publisher of the Spider-Man comics and producer of their own series of wildly popular movies. Basically, the deal they cooked up is as follows – Marvel Studios are now making Spider-Man films for Sony, which Sony is financing and distributing. In return for this, and of course various hefty fees, Marvel now get to insert Spider-Man into their own movies, which is indeed what happened with his extended cameo in Civil War last year.

The new movie recaps Spider-Man’s trip to Berlin and shenanigans with the quarrelling Avengers, before moving on to pastures new. Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker (Holland) is still very young and keen to impress his mentor in all things superheroic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) – he chafes against Stark’s insistence that he take things easy and go slow and careful for a while. In short, he is in a big hurry to grow up.

However, staying low to the ground, as it were, brings Spider-Man into contact with someone else very keen to stay off the radar of Iron Man and the other Avengers – Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage engineer put out of business by Stark and the government, who has taken to scavenging alien materials and other miracle technology and using it to build high-technology super-weapons which he sells on to anyone who has the cast. Toomes has also built himself a set of jet-powered antigravity wings, because, hey, you’ve got to have a gimmick, I guess.

So, if going to your typical American high school, complete with stressful social rituals and ceremonies, wasn’t demanding enough, and trying to meet the exacting standards of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist didn’t make life totally unbearable, Spider-Man now finds himself forced to contend with the winged menace of this high-tech vulture. What’s a boy to do?

I have to confess I was less than overwhelmed with joy when the news of the Sony-Marvel deal came through – all right, it’s nice to have a version of Spider-Man in the MCU (the shared continuity of the other Marvel Studios films since 2008), but we have had some very good Spider-Man films already in the not too distant past, while there’s still no sign of a decent take on the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom. Or what about another solo Hulk movie? Or Devil Dinosaur: the Movie? That said, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a top piece of entertainment, certainly outclassing the Marc Webb movies, and perhaps rivalling the standards of the best of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films from a decade and more ago.

The at-a-slight-remove conditions under which the Marvel Studios people are working seem to have paid off, for while this film has a distinctly different look and feel to it, compared to the likes of Doctor Strange and the Avengers movies, this is by no means a bad thing – it has a lightness of touch and sweetness that is totally disarming. Much of it is written and played as pure comedy, and it is consistently very funny indeed, in a disarmingly oddball way.

I was a bit dubious about the fact the film is called Homecoming, mainly because it seemed like it was only there as a crashingly unsubtle way of emphasising the fact that Spider-Man is now back in the MCU along with all the other characters, which at times seemed like the movie’s sole raison d’etre. This shared continuity is rammed down your throat at very regular intervals in the course of proceedings: the very first shot is a picture of the Avengers. The first scene takes place in the shadow of Avengers Tower, and is set shortly after the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. Scenes from Civil War are restaged, Downey Jr appears in both his Stark and Iron Man guises, Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films, Chris Evans cameos as Captain America, and another star gets an outrageous fourth billing considering they’re only in the movie for about two minutes. Marvel’s own movies take much less of a broad-brush approach to this sort of thing, but in the end it does kind of work, because a lot of the in-jokes and mickey-taking of the other films is spot on (this extends to some witty choices of voice casting and a brutally funny joke at the expense of the Cult of the Post-Credits Sequence).

One slightly ironic thing about this film that no-one has much commented on is the fact that Michael Keaton’s status as a ‘hot’ actor is largely down to his role in Birdman. Birdman was a film which gave its own sardonic commentary on the phenomenon of serious actors spending all their time in superhero movies, and yet Keaton has used it to get himself to this position, as a serious actor in a superhero movie – and, what’s more, playing the Vulture: someone who is, of course, essentially a… oh, work it out for yourselves.

All that to one side, Keaton is the film’s star turn when it comes to acting performances (although this is a notably well-played film throughout). We are quite a long way down from the pick of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and the Vulture suit in this movie is a rather unwieldy piece of design, but Keaton manages to create that rarest of things – not just a great villain in an MCU movie, but a blue-collar supervillain is who both a plausible character and genuinely menacing. You really wish Keaton was in the movie much more – also that the MCU people start to create characters with this sort of presence and depth for their own movies.

I would say that the climax of the movie is arguably a little weak, but in every other respect Homecoming gets the mixture of comedy, pathos, and exhilarating action you’d expect from a Spider-Man film pretty much spot on, with the film’s insertion into the wider Marvel universe a real bonus too. How many movies in a row now, without a serious misstep from Marvel Studios? You would have to be a very brave person to bet on their hot streak ending any time soon.

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Interested parties could be excused concern when it comes to the directorial career of Edgar Wright – over the last few years, anyway. Following the successful one-two of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, with their associated popular and critical success, a promising career in big-budget movies beckoned – until 2010’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World proved to be just too idiosyncratic a vision to find an audience, and he was notoriously booted from Ant-Man (a film he’d been working on for the best part of a decade), again because Marvel couldn’t quite get on board with his approach to the material. Wright’s only significant success since Hot Fuzz has been The World’s End – which harsh critics might say suggests he can’t make a good movie without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Nevertheless, Wright’s long-time backers at Working Title have stuck by him, and here they are putting their name to another very un-Working Title-like movie – neither a rom-com nor a film with especially serious aspirations, Wright’s Baby Driver is in many ways a modern take on both the kind of stylised urban drama made by Walter Hill in the seventies, and the teen-oriented drive-in tales of a generation earlier.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby, a young man with two great passions in his life – classic music and dangerous driving. Following a traffic accident as a child in which his parents were both killed, he has been left with tinnitus and is obliged to listen to music virtually non-stop in an attempt to drown out the buzzing in his ears. If only that were the worst of his problems. For some considerable time he has found himself in the sway of veteran criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), for whom he has been working as a supremely gifted getaway driver. After many years of, basically, indentured servitude, Baby finds himself on the brink of discharging his debt to Doc, and finds himself beginning to dream of freedom… the open road… Debora (Lily James), the waitress at his favourite diner…

Doc, however, has other ideas, and sees no reason to dispense with Baby’s services – his concession is that Baby will receive his share of the loot in return for his participation now, and if he refuses it will be so much the worse for him, his girlfriend, and his elderly adoptive father (CJ Jones). And so he reluctantly shows up to participate in planning sessions for a raid on a post office, other members of the team including a stockbroker turned robber (Jon Hamm) and a violent psychopath (Jamie Foxx). Baby finds his capacity to ignore the violence and cruelty that’s an essential part of armed robbery is reaching its limit, but how is he going to extricate himself from the dangerous world he’s so deeply involved in?

On paper it sounds like a fairly generic crime thriller, with many elements we have seen numerous times before (you may detect faint echoes of the 2011 movie named Drive, as well as The Driver from 1978).  What makes Baby Driver distinctive, however, is its soundtrack, which is very prominent throughout the film, and the way the music is integrated into the story: Wright’s inventiveness when it comes to this sort of thing has been clear ever since the ‘Don’t stop me now’ sequence in Shaun of the Dead. I’ve seen it suggested that this is essentially a jukebox musical (although none of the characters actually do any singing), which couldn’t function without the songs on the soundtrack.

Well, maybe. In a few places the way the songs are woven into the movie is brilliantly handled – a gun battle where the shots are choreographed to match the drums of the song playing over it, for example – but much of the time Wright doesn’t appear to be doing much more than just sticking a cool tune on over a scene. Maybe the director is a little twitchy about making the film too surreal and stylised, after what happened with Scott Pilgrim, in which case this is kind of understandable. In any case, it is naturally a very good soundtrack; anything which brings artists like Marc Bolan and The Damned to a wider audience will get the nod from me.

So in the end, instead of something particularly adventurous stylistically, we are left with that, let’s be generous, archetypal crime thriller, which on the whole is handled fairly seriously. (Although there are some very good gags along the way.) Ansel Elgort is not really required to do much more than look soulful and conflicted, and Lily James is honestly not very much more than a symbol, but they are perfectly fine in these roles. Most of the heavy lifting, in terms of actual acting, is done by the more senior members of the cast, and these performances are possibly the best thing about the movie. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx are all extremely good as characters which frequently turn out to have a bit more depth than you might honestly have expected – the result is a nicely twisty-turny caper, although a few of the final character beats and reversals don’t ring entirely true.

In any case it’s nice to find so much heft in a movie that promised to be much more about style and directorial whistles and bells. Those are still here to some extent, and perhaps this is why the various chases don’t give the breathless hit of adrenaline that a really classic movie car chase provides , and why the romance between Baby and Debora feels a bit anaemic and lacking in real heat – an ostentatious reminder of Wright’s directorial presence is never very far away, which stopped me, at least, from completely engaging with the film as a piece of fiction.

Still, this is well put together stuff, even if I’m not sure the target audience will recognise all the narrative riffs that Wright is looking to play – rather unexpectedly, he takes the morality of the film and his characters rather more seriously than is fashionable than in a lot of films aimed at this sort of demographic, and it will be interesting to see how that plays with the target audience.

Baby Driver is unlikely to transform anyone’s world, but it is a solidly assembled and consistently entertaining film. Whether (and how much) Wright is forcibly restraining his natural instincts in order to make a commercially more viable film is a question I suspect we’ll never know the answer to, but this deserves to do well for him.

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