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Posts Tagged ‘Armie Hammer’

There was a time when I used to complain on a fairly regular basis about films either using misleading titles or making insufficiently good use of promising ones. I was really thinking of movies like Tyrannosaur, Planet of Dinosaurs (a pattern develops), and Lesbian Vampire Killers. I haven’t done it for a bit, but I am almost minded to revive the tradition now that cinemas up and down the land are showing Mimi Leder’s new film On the Basis of Sex.

What is the passing punter supposed to make of a title like this? It suggests much, perhaps even promises much, but at the same time it is almost entirely obscure should you not actually be in the know. If you were to ask me I might suggest it was a film about bad reasons for getting married. Needless to say, it is not: it is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg which I believe I alluded to when discussing the documentary about the Notorious RBG.

You may think I’m dwelling at bit too much on the title thing – but it’s not as if the film can claim innocence on this front. There is a whole actual scene where someone observes that the word ‘sex’ comes with a load of baggage and it might really be better to use a less provocative synonym like ‘gender’. But are we in a theatre watching a film entitled On the Basis of Gender? We are not. It is Sex all the way (except in the film itself, that is).

The film gets underway at Harvard Law School in 1956, and the director loses no time in subtly trowelling in the subtext of the movie: martial music places, a male voice choir sings, and endless ranks of white dudes in suits stroll about, revelling in their entitlement. Marching through this scene, however, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones), one of only nine women in her year. It is dismayingly like the way that The Iron Lady tried to suggest Margaret Thatcher should be hailed as some kind of feminist icon, but the film does discover subtlety of a sort as it continues.

There’s not a great deal of Harvard stuff here, as it is mainly scene-setting and character-establishing material – Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are both students at Harvard, the place is horrendously sexist (there’s a scene where the Dean invites all the female students to dinner and then requires them to explain just what the hell they think they’re doing there), and Ruth is possessed of the sort of determination and resolve that would be unbelievable if you gave it to a fictional character: at one point she’s aceing her classes, raising their child effectively single-handed, and attending Marty’s classes too (he’s undergoing medical treatment).

Despite coming top of her year at both Harvard and Columbia, Ruth can’t land a job at an actual law firm, and ends up becoming a professor of law specialising in gender discrimination.  Ten years later, the world is showing signs of changing, with a rebellious new generation challenging the old assumptions and standards – even Ruth’s own daughter (Cailee Spaeny) gives her a hard time for being all talk and no action. But this changes when Marty’s tax work uncovers the case of a man being discriminated against for staying at home to care for his elderly mother (the law assuming that only women will do this). Could this be the opening they need to have legal gender discrimination declared unconstitutional?

One of the problems with On the Basis of Thingy, such as it is, is right there at the end of that paragraph – nothing wrong with a good courtroom drama, it’s a great framework for a narrative, providing the case is involving anyway. Now, while the principles involved in the main case here may be immensely important, and the historical context startling – this is 1970, and the US legal system is accepting that sexist legislation is constitutionally valid – but the actual case itself is honestly not that interesting or exciting. It’s about tax codes. Most of the drama is really peripheral to it – can Ruth persuade the ACLU to back them? Is participating in this going to damage Marty’s career as a top-flight tax attorney? Should they abandon a case in the state appeal court in case it sets a bad precedent for an upcoming federal supreme court appearance?

See, even here all the legal jargon starts creeping in. Now, respect is due to the movie for crediting the audience with intelligence, and I’m not adverse to a few intellectually chewy bits, but they need to be paired with genuine moments of narrative energy and excitement, and this film never honestly delivers enough of this.

Part of this is because it is always exactly the film you would expect it to be: men in ties conspire to preserve a society rigged in their favour, determined young women refuse to be dissuaded, Felicity Jones is told ‘You’ve been ready for this your whole life!’ and gets lines like ‘You don’t get to tell me when to quit!’; there is also the exchange where she declares that the word ‘freedom’ does not appear in the US Constitution (which is indeed true, if you ignore the amendments). Obviously the film is telling an important story, and its heart is in the right place, but do all the movies with this kind of theme have to be quite so po-faced? It’s like watching The Lives of the Saints more than an actual drama.

This certainly seems to be reflected in Felicity Jones’ performance, which carefully mixes steely earnestness with earnest steeliness: there’s not much sign of the mischievous sense of humour the real RBG displays in the documentary. At least the film reflects her love of opera and reportedly dreadful cooking abilities. To be honest, Jones isn’t that bad, considering the constrictions she’s operating under; Armie Hammer does very good work in a supporting role (in more senses than one). Some energy is provided by Justin Theroux (who, as regular readers will know, is not the Prime Minister of Canada but the Iron Man 2 guy) as an ACLU lawyer RBG teams up with, not entirely amicably; Cailee Spaeny’s turn as a younger Ginsberg will doubtless do her burgeoning career no harm.

I feel a bit like I’m kicking a dog by not praising On the Basis¬† of Thingy more fulsomely; a big toothy dog that could probably take my leg off at the knee, at that. This is a handsomely made film with decent performances, that manages to make some important ideas and events accessible. There are lots of people who would probably benefit a lot from watching it. I just wish it was a bit more interesting and exciting as an actual piece of entertainment.

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Is it just me, or was the back end of last year particularly busy when it came to the kind of big commercial studio releases that tend to guzzle up multiple screens at the typical multiplex? The reason I ask is that a couple of films which I would have expected to make at least some kind of appearance on the big screen in central Oxford seem to have been squeezed out entirely. It’s not unheard of for this to happen when it comes to a certain kind of low-brow action-thriller, but here we’re talking about much more distinctive pieces of work – as I mentioned, I missed Bad Times at the El Royale UK release entirely and had to go to Berlin to see it, while Boots Riley’s extravagantly well-reviewed Sorry to Bother You likewise barely seemed to trouble either the big chains or my art-house cinema of choice, and I only just managed to catch it at the Ultimate Picture Palace (doing sterling work in its function of providing exactly this sort of last chance saloon).

Set in a sort of version of present-day San Francisco, this film retells the curious odyssey of Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American man struggling to establish himself financially: he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and sign-twirler, are having to live in his uncle’s garage, for example. He seems to be making some kind of progress when he gets a job as a telemarketer with a company named RegalView, although the work is initially challenging. Success comes when an older colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he use his ‘white voice’ when making calls as this will be more reassuring for his clients (in the first of many quirky choices, when using the white voice Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross).

This leads to great success for Cash, even as his fellow employees are agitating and trying to organise for better working conditions. Eventually he is promoted to ‘Power Caller’, handling extremely lucrative and important business transactions, especially for a company named WorryFree. Owned by the visionary tycoon Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), WorryFree has become greatly successful by playing on people’s stress and uncertainty about modern life – by signing away all rights to self-determination, they are provided with work and the essentials for living. Is this exploiting a gap in the market or simply a clever re-branding of slavery? Cash does his best not to worry about it and concentrates on the material rewards his new success is bringing him, until Steve Lift himself approaches him with a proposition that could change both his life and the world to an almost inconceivable degree…

I suspect that Boots Riley won’t thank me for saying so, but the shadow of Charlie Kaufman does seem to me to hang rather heavily over Sorry to Bother You – this is the same kind of wildly absurdist comedy that Kaufman made his name by writing: the structures of modern urban life are present, but have had their normal contents emptied out and been refilled with things which are almost palpably ridiculous. The sheer inventiveness of the film is impressive, not to mention the strike rate of its jokes – there are some unforgettably funny moments in the course of the story.

However, this is the kind of satirical comedy which is setting out to draw blood, and while Charlie Kaufman often seems to me to be playing with ideas for the fun of it, Riley clearly has serious social and political points to make throughout this film. The element of this film which most of the early coverage settled on was the gimmick of the ‘white voice’, which as well as being a striking cinematic gag is a convenient metaphor for the different modes of behaviour many people, perhaps especially those from ethnic minorities, are obliged to adopt. That said, it’s still a relatively minor element of the film, which is about… well, lots of different things, to be honest, perhaps even a few too many for it to be entirely coherent as a narrative. Many of these are, admittedly, about the somewhat-vexed question of race in America – I thought that one sequence, in which Cash, as one of only two black men at a party for the super-rich, is commanded to rap for his hosts, manages to be funnier, more provocative, and say more about cultural appropriation than all of Get Out.

That said, I think this is much more a film about economics than race, although Sorry to Bother You is naturally smart enough to acknowledge that the two things are inseparably linked in modern America. Riley has said that the title itself doesn’t just refer to a telemarketer’s usual opening line, but also the film’s intention to confront the audience with some uncomfortable truths which they may habitually try quite hard to ignore. Well, maybe so, but I wonder who he imagines the audience of this film will be – I imagine that most people seeing it will already be aware of the immense social and financial inequities in western civilisation, the immense power wielded by the wealthy, the dehumanising effects of many modern jobs, and so on – these things are not secrets, they’re just treated as facts of life. Once you look past the larger-than-life characterisations and ridiculous gags, the parable of Cash’s socio-economic awakening is actually fairly straightforward, as the young man has to make a choice between getting very rich very quickly or doing the right thing. It’s only the relentless onslaught of outlandish jokes and ideas that makes the film so memorable and entertaining. Similarly, the only real solution the film has to offer basically seems to be for workers to unionise, which some might consider a little anticlimactic (well, there’s a suggestion that a violent uprising might also solve some problems, but given its context in the film it’s hard to see this is a serious proposal).

I would say that the film possibly outstays its welcome by just a few minutes, and the third act in particular shows signs of becoming completely unravelled, but the film is a satire and heavily allegorical, so this is less of a problem than it could have been. It is, in any case, quite bracing to discover a film which is so smart, so energetic, and so willing to be openly political in its comedy. I’ve heard Sorry to Bother You described as the best SF film of 2018 – I can see how someone might think it qualifies, but the science fiction elements are just part of a brew which defies conventional genre descriptions. A very funny, very sharp film, driven along by great performances from Stanfield and Hammer; one could perhaps reasonably take exception to its politics, but not to the skill with which it has been made.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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