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Posts Tagged ‘Alicia Vikander’

I decided a couple of years ago to stop watching new movie trailers over the internet, as a general rule – this was partly because they so often spoil pretty much the entire movie, but also because I think it’s surely much better to see them on the big screen, where at least some of the gosh-wow factor survives. That says, it does seem to be the case that TV and internet advertising has to some extent supplanted the old-fashioned ‘coming attractions’ style trailer – there are quite a few pretty big movies coming up over the next few weeks – the Pacific Rim sequel, Ready Player One, Rampage – and for a long while it looked like I wasn’t going to see a trailer for any of them. They all turned up in a bunch, in front of another big movie which I never saw a trailer for at all.

The movie in question is the new version of Tomb Raider, directed by Roar Uthaug, which apparently really is his name. (We are in for a bit of a mini-festival of people with unusual nomenclature, for the film was co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and co-stars someone called Walton Goggins.) Yes, they’ve done another movie based on Tomb Raider, and spent about $100 million on it. I must confess to being even more befuddled than usual by this, for to my mind the only things that scream ‘late 1990s’ more than the whole Lara Croft/Tomb Raider thing are Spice Girls records and Jim Carrey trying to be a serious actor. But apparently there is still an audience for these things (Tomb Raider movies, I mean).

This time around Lara Croft is played by Alicia Vikander, thus continuing the time-honoured tradition of talented and not-uncomely young actresses being rewarded for their skill and success in serious movies by landing a leading role in a comic-book or computer game franchise (cf. Halle Berry in Catwoman, Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men, Scarlett Johansson and Elisabeth Olsen in the Marvel movies (soon to be joined by Brie Larson), and so on). On this occasion Lara is less of a one-woman argument for the violent overthrow of the aristocracy, for as the film starts she is an impoverished victim of London’s gig economy, despite there being a massive inheritance lined up for her.

Why should this be? Well, daddy Richard Croft (Dominic West) disappeared years ago, but Lara refuses to believe he is dead and won’t sign the paperwork saying as such. (Kristen Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi turn up for this scene, just to give the film a bit of much-needed heft, and are presumably nicely rewarded for the use of 5% of their talent.) She refuses to take over the family corporation, declaring ‘I’m not that kind of Croft.’ One wonders what kind of Croft she thinks she is – a tennis player? A sitcom writer-producer? I can’t think of many others.

Then Lara finds a clue that puts her on her father’s trail: apparently he was last spotted headed for the ‘Devil’s Sea’ and a lost island, rumoured to be the location of a semi-mythical Japanese queen with allegedly supernatural death-dealing powers. Yup, there’s a tomb just crying out to be raided, if she can only get to it…

There’s a moment about halfway through the new Tomb Raider where Lara Croft, who up to this point has basically been a fairly normal (albeit unusually tanned and ripped) cycle courier on a slightly odd backpacking trip, finds herself obliged to kill a man with her bare hands (in self-defence, naturally). It’s actually quite rare for a movie to show an iconic character killing for the first time (the only other instance I can think of off the top of my head is at the very start of the 2006 Casino Royale), and to its great credit Tomb Raider doesn’t simply skate past this. Alicia Vikander’s performance in particular keeps it grounded and very real: we do get a sense that this young woman has crossed a boundary she will never be able to return from.

Then again, that’s kind of emblematic of the whole film, which seems to have ‘keep it real’ as its mission statement, and about which the single best thing is Vikander’s performance. She is playing a real human being, barely recognisable as the cartoony robotic mannequin from the two Angelina Jolie movies. Of course, time has moved on and this is reflected in the film – Lara Croft slings a very Hunger Games-ish bow rather than the usual big guns (though there is the inevitable reference to her iconic dual-wielding tendencies at one point), and Vikander is somewhat more modestly dressed – at least to the point where you don’t get a strong sense of what it feels like to be Michael Fassbender, anyway.

I have to say I was rather dubious about the rumoured attempts to reimagine Lara Croft ahead of the new movie and turn her into a more rounded individual, even if this did mean making her a less rounded individual in other ways (ka boom tish). Wouldn’t this just be missing the point of the character, roughly akin to turning James Bond into a teetotal single parent? Well, of course, it’s not quite like that, for it’s not as though we’re talking about an especially deep or complex character who’s intended to represent anything in particular, beyond the player of a particular computer game. As a computer game sprite she’s only marginally a character in the traditional sense anyway. The new movie hardly breaks ground by making her a feisty, independent, courageous young woman, but I would suggest that coming up with a coherent personality at all is some kind of achievement.

It’s certainly the most notable thing about the film, which is otherwise a very undistinguished action-adventure runaround with a slightly coy approach to just what genre it belongs to. Parts of the plot are just so silly and implausible you simply sigh and roll your eyes, while other sequences which are intended to thrill are just so hackneyed they’re dull – yes, there are more booby-traps with spikes, and oh, look, here’s another collapsing corridor to be run down, and – yes, right on cue – here comes another death-defying leap. The bad guys, led by Goggins, are very dull and anonymous, and most of Lara’s allies feel straight out of central casting. (On the other hand, turning up to deploy his monumental scene-stealing skills is Nick Frost, whom it is always good to see.) The conclusion of the movie is unnecessarily cluttered by some blatant angling to set up a sequel.

Tomb Raider is, if nothing else, a big improvement over the two Angelina Jolie movies: although the benchmark they set was so subterraneanly low that this hardly means anything at all. It passes the time and is never actively bad, but at the same time it brings nothing really new to the screen and its principal point of interest is Alicia Vikander’s excellent performance. This film will justify its existence if it helps her with her career trajectory and means she ends up playing more rewarding parts in better movies. On its own terms, however, it basically poses the question of why anyone other than hardcore gamers should still care about Lara Croft, and despite the best efforts of Vikander and everyone else, it fails to come up with a convincing answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The world is full of mysteries – most bafflingly, right now, why anyone would think it was a good idea to make a new Transporter movie without Jason Statham, but I digress – and the secret of consistently good and lucrative film-making is one of them. Mind you, that’s only part of the story – once your film is made, it’s still got to be reviewed, and this can be just as random a process as the actual production.

Or so it seems to me, at least: I think we can safely ascribe much of Fantastic Four‘s underwhelming opening weekend to the vicious reviews it received. Not that this wasn’t deserved, of course, for we’re talking about a film which is tonally all over the place, fundamentally unfaithful to the source material, and frequently quite dull to watch. 8% on Rotten Tomatoes could be considered a harsh rating, but not by much. Guy Ritchie’s new take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, currently basks in a comparatively luxuriant 67%, even though… well, we’ll get to that, I expect.

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Ritchie’s movie opens in early-60s Berlin, where playboy thief and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is intent on extracting a young woman named Gabby (Alicia Vikander) to assist him in his current assignment. However, she is already being watched by towering KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Nevertheless, Solo succeeds, and is naturally surprised when his superiors inform him that Kuryakin is to be his new partner (the Russian is not impressed either). Gabby’s father is a nuclear physicist whose discovery of a quicker way of enriching uranium could facilitate the production of nuclear warheads, and this has brought him to the attention of a Rome-based criminal syndicate. The US and the USSR have agreed to co-operate in order to find the man and bring down the criminals.

So, younger readers may be wondering, this film is about a CIA agent and a KGB agent joining forces to take on an un-named set of bad guys. So why on earth is it called The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? That’s a good question. I suspect it is because the makers of this film believe that the title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. still has some traction amongst audiences of a certain vintage and they have duly purchased the rights to it and slapped it on a buddy-buddy spy film in the hopes of luring in people with fond memories of the original.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., should you be curious and yet too sedentary to check it out on Wikipedia, was a popular TV series of the 1960s. It was very much a post-Bond piece of entertainment (indeed, Ian Fleming was involved in its genesis), very heavy on gadgets and slick spy-fi storylines. It was very much at home in a pop-cultural landscape that included similar shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Mission: Impossible, and so on. All of these series were ultimately totally escapist, serving to distract audiences from international tensions rather than examine them in any realistic or rigorous way.

So why would you make an adaptation of the show which largely revolves around the political and personal tensions between the two lead characters? Why would you ditch the concept of U.N.C.L.E. as actual organisation and just make a film about a joint CIA-KGB operation? Why would you reimagine the two protagonists so thoroughly? (Or, if you prefer, stick the names of popular characters on two wholly new creations?) The film’s Solo is an amoral crook working off his prison sentence by working for the CIA; the film’s Kuryakin is by turns Soviet iceman and Viking berserker.

There is no use of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous theme from the show. You will look in vain for any sign of a radio concealed in a pen, for those little triangular badges they used to wear, or for the organisation of bad guys from the TV show which has a rather embarassing name by modern standards. As you may or may not recall, I was no great fan of Kingsman, but I will still cheerfully admit that even in its mongrelised way, it was closer to the spirit and style of the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. than this so-called film adaptation is.

Okay, so forget about the fact that this is supposed to be based on a classic TV show (Ritchie and company certainly seem to) – how does it stand up as a spy movie in its own right? Well, if your idea of a really good spy film is something made by Fellini or starring Audrey Hepburn, you’ll probably be quite happy, because once the action shifts to Rome those seem to have been the primary influences on the film. People are forever leaping into speedboats to zip about the Bay of Naples, or decking themselves out in retro 60s gear. It’s all very evocative and nice to look at, but not especially gripping.

The direction is, to be honest, a bit self-indulgent: Ritchie can’t seem to resist going for very ostentatious set-pieces that may show his talent for composition and editing but don’t necessarily hold together that well as a story (or provide the spy movie staples). At one point a speedboat chase beckons, but Ritchie opts to go for some very laid-back business with a packed lunch and the soundtrack instead. Possibly he was just trying to be ironic, but I’m not sure he’d earned that right at that point.

In addition to being more concerned with atmsophere and aesthetics than actual plot, there’s something very odd going on with the tone here, too. The best thing about the film is indisputably Henry Cavill’s performance, which strikes a very entertaining note of drolly ironic detachment, but he’s stuck in a film which mostly takes itself pretty seriously. And when it doesn’t, it fumbles as often as it succeeds: one lengthy ‘gag’ revolves around a minor character slowly being electrocuted and burning to death. Oh, my sides. (I couldn’t help recalling that, at one point in its very long gestation, this film had Quentin Tarantino attached as a possible director.)

Cavill and Hammer do their level best with the material – both of them are in the fortunate position of being actors that Hollywood seems determined to turn into big stars, no matter how many stumbles there are en route – while Hugh Grant is also okay as Mr Waverley (needless to say he has very little in common with Leo G Carroll’s character from the show). But on the whole I thought this was an underwhelming and frequently quite dull film. To be honest, I kind of felt cheated by the use of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. name on a movie which quite clearly has no connection to the show, nor any real desire to have one. This is moderately stylish but utterly vacuous; not even fun in an ironic way.

 

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When you’ve written one inarguably brilliant novel (I refer to The Beach) and had a hand in making one of the most influential movies of the last 15 years (that would be 28 Days Later), I think you’ve earned the right to have anything else you produce treated with at least a modicum of interest and anticipation. So it was that I and a few friends found ourselves trotting off to see Ex Machina, a new SF movie written and directed by Alex Garland (also responsible for… well, see the start of the paragraph).

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Arriving at the cinema I found myself treated to a surprise cameo, not in the film itself but in the theatre, for who should be sitting across the aisle to us but my very slight acquaintance and one-time commenter on this blog, Mr Peter Hitchens (the writer, Mail on Sunday columnist, Right Wing thinker, and compiler of amusing indices). I know some people are surprised by my regard and fondness for Mr H, given our politics are – to put it mildly – somewhat divergent, but I have great respect for his intellect and integrity. Plus, anyone whom David Cameron thinks is ‘a maniac’ must be doing something right.

Trying not to let Mr H’s presence distract me too much, I settled down to watch the film. It concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young employee of a major corporation who wins the staff lottery, for which the prize is to visit the head of the company at his remote, futuristic compound. Said boss is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), and – having compelled Caleb to sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement – he reveals what he’s been working on.

Not only has Nathan seemingly solved the numerous problems of designing convincingly humanoid robots, he has also cracked the knotty issue of strong AI – probably. The thing is, he can’t be sure whether his creation is genuinely sentient or not, and to this end wants Caleb to interact with the construct and see if he is convinced of her sentience. For, yes, it is a she: the android (or should that be gynoid? Hmmm) is named Ava and played by Alicia Vikander (Ava looks rather like Robocop’s half-finished little sister).

Suffice to say that Caleb finds himself much taken with Ava, and increasingly sympathetic to her plight as – apparently – nothing but a very complex toy in the hands of the increasingly sinister and objectionable Nathan. But can he really trust either of them? And is everything going on quite what it seems to be?

One of the things propelling me to see Ex Machina was the glowing reviews it received from other acquaintances, and the first thing I have to say is that this is absolutely not a bad film. Though it clearly shows the influences of a number of other prominent SF films (others have suggested it is similar to both Westworld and I, Robot), it wears these quite lightly, and while it some degree resembles the ‘cerebral’ type of SF movie most frequently made between 1968 and 1977, the narrative is never cumbersome or especially difficult to follow. (Perhaps just as well, given I was uncomfortably aware of buzzes and flashes coming from the smartphone of one of Britain’s most prominent Right Wing commentators at several points during the film.)

As I’m sure many people are sick of being reminded, artificial intelligence is one of the few serious subjects on which I feel qualified to offer an opinion, having written a dissertation on it, and as a serious examination of the topic I think Ex Machina is only a qualified success at best. Garland has clearly done his research on the topic, with name-checks for thought-experiments like the black-and-white room and talk of the importance of invested semantics and so on, so it certainly sounds competent. On the other hand, many references are made to the Turing test, with Caleb’s encounters with Ava described as being an extended version of one – but I’m afraid this seemed to me to be so methodologically unsound I was instantly sceptical (his knowing she is a machine all along essentially invalidates the test per se, to say nothing of the Turing test being somewhat discredited as genuine assessment of AI anyway). As it turns out, the fact that this isn’t a ‘proper’ Turing test turns out to be central to the plot, with Nathan fully aware of its shortcomings – but it doesn’t explain why Caleb isn’t more dubious of what he’s participating in. Oh well: to err is human (which does seem to be one of the film’s themes).

In any case, the film is clearly intended to function as a fable rather than a naturalistic drama, although quite what it’s about is not entirely clear. There is a time-honoured tradition of any story about AI or robotics concluding with what Isaac Asimov used to refer to as the clank-clank-aaargh stage, but it would obviously be spoiling the story for me to reveal if Ex Machina also goes in this direction. For most of its duration it seems to be addressing many of the issues involved in the development of strong AI only in passing – if we did build a sentient machine, what moral right would we have to effectively hold it in slavery? – and it seemed to me that the film was rather more concerned not with human-machine relations but how people treat each other, and specifically the way in which men objectify women. It’s not by chance that Nathan’s AI has female form. It’s an interesting approach to the issue, but again what the film is trying to say beyond the obvious is unclear (and if Alex Garland really is serious about criticising male objectification of women, making a film in which every major female character has a full-frontal nude scene is a slightly odd way of doing so).

Nevertheless, Garland’s direction is assured and the film looks very impressive throughout: the visuals have a pristine coolness that matches the measured tone of proceeding. Every shot feels like it has been very carefully worked out and made as immaculate as possible. The problem with this, however, is that the visuals sometimes dominate and render the story itself somewhat inscrutable. This is problematic when what the film is trying to say is open to several interpretations, most of which are mutually exclusive. Is it suggesting that machine intelligence will essentially prove to be cold and unknowable, something inherently alien and perhaps hostile? Or is it trying to indicate quite the opposite, that our machine creations will only be flawed and dangerous inasmuch as they resemble us so closely? It’s not that the film is deliberately ambiguous on this, but more that it doesn’t really suggest it has any real position at all.

At the risk of stealing the Mail on Sunday’s thunder (and there are some words I never thought I’d type), I can reveal that Mr Hitchens found the film to be generally enjoyable, although he thought it descended into absurdity in the last five minutes. Well, I had less of a problem with that than he did, and I was pleasantly surprised, during our brief chat, to discover his familiarity with 70s SF touchstones – I had to remind myself he really doesn’t know me and restrain my indignation at the suggestion I might not have seen Westworld myself (Mr H, should you be reading, the link to the review is up the page). (Despite his good-natured grumbling about being asked for instant film criticism, I thought he had a decent crack at it.)

On the whole I thought this was a superior SF movie and a very impressive debut from Garland. This may not be the only low-budget, highbrow genre movie we see this year starring Isaacs and Gleeson (NB: irony is present), but it may well prove the most interesting. Still, it’s not perfect – it bears a certain resemblance to an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, just one slightly less impressive than most. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, it really isn’t meant to: this is a good film, just not quite a great one.

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