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Posts Tagged ‘Idris Elba’

When it comes to film CVs, there’s homogenous, and then there’s eclectic, and then there’s George Miller. To be fair, Miller isn’t the only one to have skipped his way through multiple genres in the course of a long career – you could argue that (amongst others) Neil Jordan, Steven Soderbergh and even Steven Spielberg have all covered a lot of ground, as well – but the relatively small number of films he’s made in over forty years, and the acclaim many of them have received, does make it particularly noticeable in his case. He practically invented a new subgenre in Mad Max 2, moved gracefully on to glossy fantasy with Witches of Eastwick, wrote and produced the pitch-perfect pig fantasy Babe, and then – after a brief interlude involving dancing penguins – blasted back with the most recent Mad Max film at the age of 70. A further spin-off to the road warrior series is apparently in the works, but Miller has warmed up for this with another entirely different kind of film.

This one is entitled Three Thousand Years of Longing, and a somewhat curious beast it is too. The protagonist-narrator (Tilda Swinton) presents it as a kind of fable or fairy tale, which is entirely appropriate as the film is largely about why people tell stories and the power inherent in them. Swinton plays Alithea Binnie (her name means ‘truth’, which is probably not a coincidence), a present-day academic – she calls herself a narratologist, but this sounds to me like the kind of discipline scriptwriters invent when they’re worried audiences won’t understand what an anthropologist or ethnographer actually does. Basically, she studies folk tales and other literature. As the film opens she is on her way to Istanbul to address a conference.

All goes well, apart from Alithea having some rather bizarre hallucinations of outlandish and otherworldly individuals haunting her steps – she is clearly well-liked and respected, despite being someone who has always been solitary and slightly detached from everyone around her. A colleague insists on buying her a gift from the Grand Bazaar before she departs, and she settles on a slightly curious glass bottle, somewhat discoloured by fire at some point in its history.

As you would, she decides to give the bottle a bit of a scrub with her electric toothbrush, and – you are probably ahead of me at this point – the top flies off and billowing mystical vapour fills the room. Yes, it’s one of those bottles with a genuine genie inside it, although as we are in 2022 and respect other cultures now, the movie tends to stick to the word djinn instead. The djinn (Idris Elba) offers Alithea the usual three wishes to fulfil her heart’s desire, subject to certain reasonable rules (no wishing for infinite wishes, no raising the dead, no abolition of suffering, etc), at the end of which he will be able to vanish off to the realm of the djinni. However, there are a couple of problems to be overcome first – as a scholar in her particular field, Alithea knows full well that the entire corpus of wish-granting literature easily fits into the genre labelled ‘Cautionary Tales’, which is hardly an incentive to start wishing for anything. There’s also the problem that she’s very satisfied with her current mode of existence, and isn’t at all sure what her heart’s desire actually is…

This is not one of those films which you get a sense of an iron narrative structure about while watching, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or engaging. Once the djinn is out of his bottle, the two of them settle down in her hotel room to discuss their situation, which develops into the djinn recounting the peculiar tale of his long existence and the various interludes which have punctuated his time in the bottle. A series of quite lavish Orientalist fantasies unfold, incorporating characters such as Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Suleiman the Magnificent, and so on. There is doomed love and palace intrigue and a striking number of really extremely voluptuous women who are notably under-dressed. It put me very much in mind of certain elements of Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen movie, and also some parts of his Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus too, although Miller doesn’t have quite the same unique visual style. Eventually the film goes into a different gear, telling the story of what happens when Alithea takes the djinn back home to London with her.

This film is really a buffet of things to enjoy; it looks fabulous, and the two leads are both on top form – then again, Tilda Swinton is seldom less than magisterially watchable. Perhaps it is working opposite her which inspires Idris Elba to give one of the best performances I can recall him ever producing – blessed as he is with a very distinctive presence, so often Elba seems to be actively trying to be generic. The most memorable thing about Idris Elba’s film career, in some ways, is just how forgettable he often is. For whatever reason, that doesn’t happen here, and Elba’s work has both depth and subtlety. If he really wants to leave an impression as an actor, he should spend more time doing films like this and less time being chased by lions.

What it’s actually about is a little more obscure. George Miller is of the post-Lucas school of thought in the sense that he is very much influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly with respect to the latter’s theory of the monomyth – the idea that there is one fundamental ur-story from which all the others are derived. You can sense the director’s very real fascination with the power of storytelling and roots of mythology throughout the film; you get the impression there’s a first-rate documentary waiting to be made here. But as an actual piece of fiction dealing with this topic, it’s not really clear what point he’s trying to make – or even if there is one.

Instead, the film concludes with a reasonably affecting (if slightly rose-tinted) tale of romance and loss. If it’s ultimately a bit unexpected, that’s because it always seems difficult to predict what’s going to happen next in this film. It’s a very likeable, deeply humane film, made with obvious intelligence, wit and sensitivity – but’s notably short on any real sense of conventional narrative structure. The incidental pleasures on offer will more than likely be sufficient reward for many viewers, however.

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Baltasar Kormakur’s new movie has a bit of a problem in the title stakes: all the obvious and good ones have gone. This is a film about Idris Elba being chased by a lion for the best part of an hour, but he couldn’t call it Lion, as that was the name of a well-received Dev Patel vehicle from a few years ago. Likewise, calling it Pride would run the risk of getting mixed up with a movie about LGBT activism during the 1980s miner’s strike from even further back. Help! It’s a Lion! would probably have been a bit too on-the-nose even for a modern studio picture. In the end they’ve gone with Beast, which is hardly a perfect solution because – as any fule kno – there was a rather superior psycho-thriller of that name in 2018. First world problems, eh?

The film itself is, obviously, concerned with nothing of the sort, and opens with some people whom we eventually learn to be poachers shooting some lions deep in the South African bush. However, they miss the male of the pride, which – presumably due to the trauma of the experience – transforms into a sort of magical monster lion, capable of killing people in complete silence, shrugging off tranquiliser darts, teleportation, surviving being inside exploding vehicles, and so on.

None of this is known to Idris Elba, playing a doctor who’s flying into the country with his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries) for a much-needed holiday: his estranged wife, the girls’ mother, has recently passed away and everyone feels it is important that the family spends time together (no-one actually uses the word ‘bond’, presumably as Idris Elba always gets very agitated whenever he hears it, even in passing). They are staying with an old family friend who is a game warden: as this is an Afrikaans character, he is of course played by Sharlto Copley, who has owned the Hollywood concession on playing white South African supporting roles for a good many years now.

Off they go into the bush for some driving around and looking at animals, and it is all fairly agreeable until they come across a village where every single person has been killed by the magical monster lion. The lion even has a go at eating Sharlto Copley, but as this would mean Idris Elba would essentially have to be in every scene for the rest of the movie, it just nibbles on him a bit. Elba and the kids end up stuck in a landrover looking worried. This takes up a surprisingly long section of the movie. Eventually, of course, it falls to Elba to put aside his metropolitan skittishness and man up, for the sake of his children if nothing else. How is he feeling emotionally as the struggle gets underway? The magical monster lion could probably tell you the answer: raw!

There’s a lot of meat on the menu in Beast, but really this movie does feel like low-hanging fruit somehow: it’s a film about Idris Elba being chased by a lion. At heart it is as basic and straightforward as that. It takes exactly the shape and form you would expect from a movie about Idris Elba being chased by a lion. There is an initial opening section in which there is no lion, in which there is some industrious laying-in of heavy-duty backstory and relationships. You know from the start that the classic, archetypal story of Idris Elba being chased by a lion is going to (in theory) be given some emotional heft and colour by the subplot about this damaged family coming together in adversity, as there is always an upside to this kind of experience, apparently. It’s a bit like in the Spielberg version of War of the Worlds where thousands are killed and civilisation nearly collapses, but it’s all okay because this teaches Tom Cruise how to be a better dad. In the same way all those people who get mauled to death by the magical monster lion must end up resting easy as they reflect on how their agonising demises at least served to help Idris Elba and his kids remember that they are really quite fond of one another.

It is, I suppose, quite functional; the scenery is nice, there are some decent jump-scares, there is nothing to nitpick in the special effects department, and Copley is always a watchable presence on screen. Elba isn’t really done any favours, by the script, however – I know this is supposed to be the story of how Elba finds the strength and will and ingenuity to fight for his family, but he’s so completely useless at the start of the film it’s genuinely quite irritating (it’s like a suspense thriller where the main character is Daddy Pig – Peppa’s old man). I found myself actually wanting him to get eaten by the lion; it almost feels like he deserves it.

Then again, you have to admire Idris Elba, if only for his sheer staying power: the man keeps plugging away, even if the average person would be hard-pressed to name a hit film where he is genuinely the leading man as opposed to the head of an ensemble or a supporting player. (His people would no doubt point out Elba’s sheer bankability, given his films have made nearly four billion dollars in total, but most of that would probably come from cameos in half a dozen Marvel movies – an experience he apparently hated.) As this film goes on he becomes less irritating and his innate charisma is allowed to manifest; in the end, it’s not actually a bad performance, even if the climax, when it finally arrives, put me very much in mind of part of the Monty Python Scott of the Sahara sketch, which was rather disastrous for it as a piece of drama.

It’s… okay. It’s the kind of film you’ll probably end up watching on TV on a Saturday night, because you fancy watching a thriller about a man-eating lion and your partner likes Idris Elba (or vice versa). It’s about Idris Elba being chased by a lion. It delivers everything that description promises, but very little else of substance or genuine interest. If you want to watch Idris Elba being chased by a lion for the best part of an hour and half then this is the movie for you. Otherwise, not so much.

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Once or twice in the past we have discussed the quaint phenomenon where something gets slapped with a definite article which it had not, generally speaking, possessed – at least not for a long while. This is usually done with the goal of imparting a (probably spurious) sense of maturity and gravitas to something generally regarded as quite silly. The more devoted type of fan is particularly fond of this kind of thing; and, knowing that devoted fans are more likely than normal people to buy multiple tickets and DVD releases for the same film, film producers follow suit, for sound capitalist reasons. Hence the second film about Hugh Jackman’s metal-skeletoned eviscerator was The Wolverine, the forthcoming Robert Pattinson-starring film about a billionaire with an odd hobby is The Batman, Jason Momoa’s character in the DC movie series was occasionally referred to as the Aquaman, and so on. To me it always smacks of a desperate need to be taken seriously, but I suppose it’s harmless enough.

Hence we now have the sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, named (you guessed it) The Suicide Squad, for which original director David Ayer has been replaced by James Gunn. Fond as I am of Gunn’s work as a director and producer, the words ‘maturity’ and ‘gravitas’ are not necessarily the first ones to spring to mind when considering his previous movies, so this may just have been the easiest way to distinguish the new film from the old one.

The premise remains the same, and is drawn from the comic series created by John Ostrander (who cameos) in 1987: imprisoned supervillains are offered a reduction in their sentence if they agree to go on insanely dangerous missions for a covert branch of the US government, with compliance ensured by the insertion of an explosive device into their skulls. It’s a good premise for a comic book, perhaps not quite such a good one for a movie – I said five years ago that choosing to make a film about a collection of second- and third-string villains from Batman and the Flash when you haven’t actually made a proper Batman or Flash film yet is a really weird choice. And that still applies – I can’t help thinking of that saying about doing the same thing repeatedly yet expecting different results.

But is this quite the same thing? On paper it seems like it is. Convicted mercenary Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is coerced into joining the Squad for a new mission: a military coup in the island nation of Corto Maltese (the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns remains inescapable, it seems) means that a dangerous research project has fallen into the hands of an unstable new junta, and the stated objective is to break into a high-security facility and shut it down.

Joining Bloodsport in this endeavour are various other characters who are also psychopathic, not to mention mostly idiots or profoundly unstable, or both: Peacemaker (John Cena), a man so dedicated to peace he will commit any atrocity to achieve it; Ratcatcher 2 (a new version of an obscure Batman character, played by Daniela Melchior); anthropomorphic selachian King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); and Polka-Dot Man (another new version of an obscure Batman character, this one played by David Dastmalchian). Reprising their roles from the original film are Viola Davis as the ruthless director of the squad, Joel Kinnaman as field commander Rick Flag, Margot Robbie as homicidal pole-dancer Harley Quinn, and Jai Courtney as absurd national stereotype Captain Boomerang, while there are also appearances from a bunch of other minor characters, most notably Michael Rooker as Savant and Nathan Filion as the Detachable Kid (don’t even ask).

Gunn owes his current profile as a director to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies he made for Marvel Studios; the fact he’s done this one is mainly due to the fact that Marvel temporarily parted company with Gunn after he got twitter-mined a couple of years ago. Looking at Gunn’s record as a director, he doesn’t seem like someone particularly inclined towards repeating himself, but it seems like a safe bet that DC took him on in the hope that he would do for them exactly what he did for their competitors: take an unpromising project about a team of obscure, morally-ambiguous characters and transform it into a crowd-pleasing hit packed with off-beat humour and general weirdness.

Certainly the parallels between Gunn’s Marvel movies and the new film are many and frequently obvious: a gang of oddballs who meet in prison squabble and bicker their way through spectacular set pieces as they find themselves gradually becoming a team, before discovering a latent spark of heroism as a terrible threat emerges. There’s a comedy CGI tank with a limited vocabulary voiced by a big-name star, a rodent, Michael Rooker, and so on, and so on. People who enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy will probably find a lot to enjoy here too, especially if they feel that Marvel movies don’t feature enough scenes in which people are graphically ripped in half.

That said, this is still a film which is as wildly inconsistent and tonally chaotic as we have come to expect when James Gunn is writing as well as scripting. Much of it is very funny, albeit in a ‘this is horrible, why am I laughing?’ kind of way, but the knowing silliness of the film means that the more emotional and serious beats, when they make their rare appearances, often fail to land. On the other hand, he gets good performances out of the leading cast members – it’s fairly obvious that Idris Elba’s character was originally written for Will Smith as Deadshot, but Elba’s underplayed mixture of exasperation and despair at the excesses of his colleagues means he makes the role his own. As for Margot Robbie, she gets shuffled off into her own subplot for much of the movie, which she carries quite well – it’s safe to say that this is the least annoying Robbie has ever been as Harley Quinn. She comes very close to being upstaged by Daniela Melchior, though.

I have to say that, once the film settled down and got into its groove, I thoroughly enjoyed it: much more than the first one. Partly this is because the jokes and action are generally very good, but also because – well, it starts off looking like this is going to be a movie channelling the essence of the gloomiest period in comic book history, the late 80s and early 90s, when homicidal cynicism ruled the world. But by its end, The Suicide Squad is celebrating the fantastical and garish excesses of the Silver Age of Comics, even as it gently pokes fun at them – the climax features an astonishingly faithful and well-staged portrayal of a classic DC comics antagonist. The film is really in its stride by this point and suddenly it seems as if Gunn has found a way to make this kind of film work without just aping the Marvel template – he makes a lot of the competition’s films look awfully strait-laced and over-cautious by comparison.

As noted, if the definite article added to the title of The Suicide Squad is meant to indicate it is a more serious and grown-up film, then this is false advertising: it’s astoundingly violent and often profane, but it also revels in its own extravagant silliness and thoroughly embraces the craziness of a lot of comic books from many years ago. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but then that’s always going to be an issue with a Gunn script – in the end, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. There is an awful lot to enjoy here if you can take the pace.

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Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in Cats are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper’s movie. ‘Battlefield Earth with whiskers,’ was the coup de grace of one assessment; ‘a dreadful hairball of woe’ was another; ‘it’s just not finished‘ was the despairing cry of one professional viewer – one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one’s time feeling sorry for oneself – the charitable thing to do is to spend one’s time feeling sorry for Cats.

Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible.  That said, the film hasn’t exactly helped itself – Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like ‘sticking plaster’, ‘on’, and ‘a shark bite’ do creep into my mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled ‘Jellicle songs for jellicle cats’. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word ‘jellicle’, which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn’t really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren’t many obvious rhymes for it (‘petrochemical’, maybe, and ‘Ecumenical’; one might even suggest ‘genital’, but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).

Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it’s a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot’s writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.

What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren’t many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it’s all ‘I Am’ and not much ‘I Want’; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don’t really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.

Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they’ve got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI’d onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It’s just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn’t sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or – well, look, I’m not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.

Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that ‘Memory’, the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number – here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I’m afraid.

In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.

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‘Why are there two enormous bald angry men in this trailer?’

I couldn’t tell if Sagacious Dave sounded more aggrieved or suspicious. ‘Because the third enormous bald angry man fell out with the second one,’ I said (I decided not to go into details of the Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson tiff just at that moment).

Sagacious Dave grumphed. Once again, I couldn’t really believe my luck: having talked the ursine Head of Advanced Erudition from my workplace into going to see The Meg with me last year (as readers with long memories and short change may recall), and his making vaguely positive noises about it, I took the chance on suggesting we go and see this year’s Jason Statham film as well. He had insisted on seeing the trailer first, though.

In the end the Sagacious One said yes, and off we went to the cinema, accompanied by one of his children (I wasn’t sure if the offspring actually wanted to see the movie or just see with his own eyes what the patriarch of the family did in his spare time). As it turned out, if Sagacious Dave had known going in that this was a Fast & Furious movie, I would have had a much harder job talking him into it, as he had seen one of the duff early sequels and not enjoyed it. But he hadn’t so I didn’t and there we were watching David Leitch’s Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw like two serious-minded education professionals (plus a grown-up child).

Never mind that this is officially a spin-off from the long-running Fast & Furious franchise, this coming together of genial Dwayne Johnson and Mr Jason Statham feels somehow fated. I know they’ve technically been together in the last two F&Fs, but on this occasion the movie can dispense with all the supporting cast of sidekicks and just let the pair of them get on with it, which basically boils down to frowning a lot and property damage.

There is something pleasingly purist about the straightforwardness of the plot. Some evil transhumanist terrorists have stolen a plot McGuffin and an MI6 team is sent to steal it back (some iffy editing strongly indicates their secret base is in an underground car-park under St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but I doubt this is intentional). Leading the team is Hatty Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), who is of course Mr Statham’s little sister. Things take on some of the proportions of a citrus fruit when they encounter lead terrorist operative Idris Elba, who has been given the strikingly dubious name of ‘Brixton’ and basically turned into MACH One from the old 2000AD comic. Brixton frames Hatty Shaw for the death of her own team and forces her to go on the run, having downloaded the McGuffin into her own body (of course).

Now, it turns out that Mr Hobbs and Mr Shaw are both already on the case, as depicted through a lively sequence using more split screen effects than have been seen in a movie theatre since about 1971. ‘Who are you?’ growls a bad guy, supplying this feed line with an admirably straight face. ‘I’m a giant sized can of whup-ass,’ replies genial Dwayne, who also manages to deliver this immortal dialogue deadpan. ‘Funny, I’d have thought that would have broken,’ observes Mr Statham, over in his bit of the sequence, having beaten about six people unconscious with a champagne bottle which has miraculously remained intact. Oh, friends, the joy – the joy.

Now, believe it or not, you can’t just have these two walloping people for the whole movie, and the script dutifully obliges by crowbarring in scenes establishing the moral premise of Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. Mr Hobbs gets a scene with his young daughter (who has had a facelift since F&F 8) and Mr Shaw gets a scene with his mum (still Helen Mirren, who has clearly realised this is the kind of film where you don’t have to worry too much about acting), and it turns out both of them are carrying an inner sadness, because they are estranged from their families. Could it be that all the chasing about and hitting people that will come over the next two hours will bring about a rapprochement? Hint: yes.

So, the CIA (embodied by an uncredited Ryan Reynolds, who is roaringly OTT even by the standards of this kind of film) puts genial Dwayne and J-Stat together to find Hatty Shaw and the missing McGuffin (‘No ****ing way!’ howl the duo in unison) and hopefully fend off the marauding Brixton. They chase about London for a while and blow a lot of it up. Then they go to an evil base in Russia and chase about there for a while, blowing much of that up too (the evil base is clearly meant to be under the Chernobyl plant, but this has been snipped from the script presumably because they don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the bandwagon of that TV show). Then they all go off to Samoa to blow most of there up too (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis appears as Mr Hobbs’ elder brother).

On the way out I asked Sagacious Dave what he’d thought of it (his son had been sitting between us so I hadn’t heard his reaction to the choicer moments of the film). ‘That was very congruent,’ he said, with a beatific smile upon his face. It turned out this meant he thought it cleaved very admirably to the requirements of the action movie genre. And indeed it does: lots of cars and even a few buildings are demolished, Mr Statham gets to beat up multiple people simultaneously in more than one scene, and genial Dwayne gets to do a Samoan war dance before dragging a helicopter out of the sky using sheer muscle power. (If, as has been suggested, the fight scenes are carefully choreographed so both stars take exactly the same number of punches, for contractual reasons, it is not at all obvious.) But it also entertains mightily as a knockabout comedy film, with the two leads sparring breezily and overcoming some very Carry On-level humour. Thankfully the film does have a sense of its own ridiculousness and plays up to this just enough: it is, of course, absurd to suggest that Dwayne Johnson (an actor so monolithic that compared to him J-Stat is described as the ‘small, subtle’ one) can evade an international manhunt by putting on a cap and a false moustache, but it’s such an amusing idea that the movie gets away with it. Only when Kevin Hart comes on to do the actual comic relief do things feel a bit laboured and you wish they’d get on with it.

They even find time to include the necessary character beats and reflective moments as the film continues, and we learn a bit of the back-story of both lead characters (Mr Shaw’s history has become a bit confusing, and his reinvention as misunderstood anti-hero kind of glosses over the fact he murdered Sung Kang in F&F 3, 6, and 7, but hey ho). But Leitch knows not to get too bogged down in this stuff and soon we are back to moments of priceless cinematic gold like Eddie Marsan running amok with a flamethrower or Idris Elba being head-butted in slow-motion.

Needless to say, the action choreography is lavish and immaculate, as you would expect from a movie on this scale. I think there is a strong case to be made that the Fast & Furious films have really displaced the Bond franchise as cinema’s big, brash, outrageous action series – they don’t have quite the same wit or classiness, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, know how to stick to a winning formula, and they are almost irresistibly entertaining, especially when they’re fronted by actors like Johnson and Statham.

That said, we are told that Fast & Furious 10 will mark the end of the series. Happily, though, it looks very much like future Hobbs & Shaw movies are on the cards, separate to all of that. Does the Fast & Furious series really need Vin Diesel and all of that Los Angeles street racer malarkey? On the evidence of this film, I would say not. This is a very silly film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

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‘Someone,’ whispered the minion behind the counter at Oxford’s most prestigious coffeeshop-stroke-cinema, his voice trembling with incredulity, ‘has used his free ticket card to see The Greatest Showman eight times.’ I’m not entirely sure why he felt the need to share this with me, although it is surely quite a noteworthy occurrence; personally I suspect I could quite happily get to the other end of my life without watching The Greatest Showman even once. But there you go, it’s a Holiday Season movie, and these are almost by definition undemanding fare unlikely to provoke any sort of strong reaction, unless of course you’re an adherent of Jediism.

Now, of course, we’re into January and the sudden switch to serious and challenging awards-season movies is almost enough to give a person whiplash. Seizing the New Year pole position for 2018, in the UK at least, is Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, which may well do very well when the shiny things are handed out. With the exception of Battle of the Sexes, it’s hard to think of a movie which is better positioned to benefit from the fact that Hollywood is currently in post-Weinstein mea culpa mode.

This is the true story (for the usual movie value of ‘true’, anyway) of Molly Bloom, a one-time top skiing prospect who found herself forced to a retire following a catastrophic wipe-out during qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Through the wonders of cinema, Jessica Chastain plays Bloom from her early twenties to her her mid-thirties.) Having endured pushy parenting from her father (Kevin Costner) all her life, Molly rebels a bit and goes off to Los Angeles for a year before law school.

Of course, she never makes it to law school (somewhat ironically, as things turn out) – in true over-achiever style, she ends up responsible for administering a celebrity poker game where she picks up thousands of dollars in tips every week. Underappreciated and mistreated by some of the men involved, she relocates to New York and sets up her own game, and is soon earning millions as an ‘events manager’. But how long can she hang onto her integrity and keep out of the clutches of organised criminals?

The answer to this may be suggested by the fact that the story of Molly’s party-planning career is intercut with her attempts to avoid going to jail a couple of years later, after she is arrested as part of an FBI swoop against the Russian mafia. Idris Elba plays her defence lawyer and gets to look exasperated a lot as she refuses to compromise on her principles by dishing the dirt on her players in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s first film as director, but there’s a good chance you will know him from his work as a scriptwriter over the last couple of decades: he wrote A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, amongst other films, as well as creating the TV series The West Wing. He writes and directs here in very much the way you might expect, which is to say no concessions are made to anyone who isn’t especially quick on the uptake: the movie opens with a sequence depicting a key moment from Molly Bloom’s life, in the course of which we are also bombarded with information about medical conditions of the spine, interesting trivia about skiing, the architecture of the Pyramids, and much else besides. Information overload does seem a distinct possibility for a while.

After a while, though, you get kind of habituated to it and Sorkin does his usual trick of giving you a bit of a lesson without it being very obvious – the chewy bits of actual new knowledge being obscured by his trademark razor-sharp dialogue, well put across by Chastain and Elba, who are both very good (so is Costner, in what’s not much more than a cameo). It’s undoubtedly a fascinating story, and Sorkin has deftly shaped it into a satisfying narrative: this movie is redolent of talent and class in every department – significant, but also very entertaining.

That said, I can’t help but suspect that Sorkin is trying to pull a little bit of a fast one, or at least being rather selective. No-one’s going to get criticised for making a film about a strong, confident woman, and especially not at the moment, but it seems to me that he perhaps overdoes it a very tiny bit in depicting Molly Bloom as such an aspirational figure of impeccable integrity – the fact she genuinely was a drug-addicted racketeer, at least towards the end of her time in poker, is gently but diligently finessed away. It seems to me that much of the appeal of this film comes from the insights it gives into a world of conspicuous opulence and luxury, to the point of actual decadence, and the lives of celebrities who can cheerfully gamble away hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening. The success of the LA game is largely derived from the presence of ‘Player X’, a famous movie star and apparently not a very nice person. Michael Cera is in the role of X, and publicity for the film stresses he is a composite of several other very well-known actors (all of whom were clearly uncharacteristically reticent about appearing in this high-profile movie), but you can’t help but wonder.

You also can’t help but notice that, for all that this is supposedly a film about a woman’s ability to fight her own corner and make her own way in the world, despite the attempts of various repellent men to control and belittle her, it still has no reservations about – what the hell, I’m going to use the word – exploiting the fact that Jessica Chastain is an extremely attractive woman. The only other place I have seen such systematic deployment of the image of a beautiful woman in horn-rimmed specs displaying eye-popping decolletage is on certain fairly specialist websites. No doubt the film-makers would say they are simply reflecting how Bloom was required to present herself in her milieu, but there’s presenting it and then there’s enjoying the view, and Molly’s Game seems to be doing the latter.

One could even take exception to the fact that – and I have to tread carefully here, for fear of revealing major spoilers – even though here we have a film with a powerful central female character, and a generally feminist outlook, the dramatic arc of the piece is resolved in terms of the lead’s relationship with one of the men in her life: it is he who has ultimately had the greatest influence upon her.

Or it may just be that I am focusing too much on the gender politics of a film which is primarily intended to be just a classy, slick, smart piece of entertainment. I doubt it, though, for Molly’s Game‘s array of repugnant men, by turns grasping, needy, and contemptible, and smart, competent, beautiful women seems just a bit too measured for this to be wholly accidental. It is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an extremely well-made and very entertaining film, and an impressive debut for Sorkin as a director, and in the current climate I expect it will do well when the awards are handed out. But if you view it as a serious film about important issues in the world today, then I think it rings just a little bit hollow.

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The thing about a big new studio blockbuster coming out is that it does tend to occupy more than the standard number of screens. When that blockbuster is a hefty three hours plus in length (taking trailers and such into account), the opportunities for a good range of other new films to get proper exposure become depressingly limited. Sometimes you just want to enjoy the experience of going to the movies. Sometimes you just have a free afternoon and literally nothing else to do. So you occasionally find yourself watching a movie which you probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing if anything more promising was available. This was how I ended up spending a couple of hours in front of Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us.

Beau ‘He’s not Jeff’ Bridges plays Walter, an ageing ex-fighter jockey and now charter pilot running his business in Utah. Walter lives a happy life with his dog, reminiscing about his experiences in Vietnam and elsewhere. All is well until two strangers, whose commercial flight has been cancelled due to a looming storm, hire Walter to fly them to Denver. Easy peasy for an old hand like Walt! He doesn’t even bother filing a flight plan. Unfortunately, while in the air, Walter suffers an unfortunate cerebral event and the plane crashes in what is apparently called the High Uintas Wilderness, killing Walter stone dead.

Yes, what Walter has never realised is that he is nothing but a plot device character, there to enable the stranding of the actual stars of the movie in the sticky situation they will spend most of the rest of it trying to get out of. They are Ben (Idris Elba), a buttoned-up surgeon rushing off to an operating theatre in Baltimore, and Alex (Kate Winslet), an impulsive photojournalist who is, you guessed it, getting married in the morning. Discovering that Walter has crashed in what appears to be Middle-Earth, or possibly the planet Hoth, is not promising news, nor is the fact that their distress beacon is in another part of the plane which fell off and landed some way away.

Well, Ben wants to stay with the wreckage, citing the dangers of falling off the mountain and being attacked by a mountain lion (for some reason I was surprised to discover mountain lions live on mountains, but I see now that it makes a certain amount of sense), to name but two – the fact Alex has a mildly broken leg is also a consideration. But Alex just can’t bring herself to sit around and starve to death, so when the food starts to run out (the possibility of eating Walter’s corpse is quite properly never even mooted), off she toddles down the mountain, with a reluctant Ben drawn to follow her.

Luckily Idris Elba is clearly unaware of what happens to dudes who hang around with Kate Winslet in a post-disaster-type scenario. Exactly what kind of film is this? Well, partly it is one of those ‘figures in a landscape’ type things, with lots of helicopter shots of people staggering across bleak wastelands and confronting the terrible beauty of nature in all its glory, etc etc – these films tend to be somewhat light on incident and also to go on for a while, and this is all true to some extent of The Mountain Between Us as well. But on the other hand it does have a slightly Titanic-y vibe to it, as the focus is at least as much on their relationship as it is the plight they are in. Not that you are ever allowed to really forget the plight, of course. I suppose if I had to coin a name for this sort of extravaganza it would be either ‘survival romance’ or more likely ‘romantic tragedy’.

As opposed to ‘romantic comedy’, of course. To be honest just a sprinkling of comedy, or even anything of a slightly lighter tone, would have helped this movie a lot, for it feels terribly leaden and heavy-going for much of its length. Elba and Winslet seem quite unaware they are starring in a piece of life-affirming, crowd-pleasing cobblers, and attempt to give serious Proper Actor performances, which are more than the script deserves. I know I’m an indoorsy type – if it wasn’t for cinema trips and the need to work, I expect I’d hardly ever leave the house – but this seemed to me to be a really rather dull film. Oh, look, they’re on top of a mountain. It is snowy. Now they have staggered partway down the mountain. It is still snowy. Now they are in a forest. Is that snow everywhere? I suspect it is. Whatever next?

This is before we get to the romantic element of the plot, which is arguably torpedoed by the palpable lack of chemistry between Elba and Winslet. The moment at which they finally come together feels like some kind of contractual obligation, and occurs under what seem to me to be unlikely circumstances. Then again, perhaps malnutrition, bone fractures, first-stage frostbite and incipient gangrene are what get some people in the mood for a spot of the old rumpy – I don’t judge in these matters. Even so, what ensues is a notable example of a Bad Sex Scene, though this is more down to the director overdoing it than any fault of his stars. At least it’s not too prominent an element of the story, or they might have had to retitle the film The Mounting Between Us.

At first it looks like this movie isn’t going to outstay its welcome and get off the screen after a relatively snappy 100 minutes or so, with the duo staggering back to civilisation in an appropriately overwrought way (yes, they don’t freeze to death; I trust this doesn’t constitute a spoiler). But the thing drags on for a lengthy coda as they go back to their lives, don’t answer each other’s phone calls, and generally obey the plot imperative to resist the inevitable for as long as possible. However, I wasn’t looking impatiently for the moment where they admit their feelings for each other, I was looking impatiently at my watch.

I would imagine that Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are well-established enough as actors for this piece of tosh not to damage their careers significantly. A film which was just a little lighter on its feet would have worked much better. As it is, The Mountain Between Us is competently assembled for most of its duration, but ultimately almost wholly inert as either a drama or a romance. Outdoorsy types might find something to enjoy, I suppose, but there’s not much for the rest of us.

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And now for another installment in our current series entitled Underperformance Anxiety, in which we consider the plight of a movie which has not lived up to box-office expectations in a fairly serious way. This time around it is Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, based on a (I’m tempted to say ‘interminable’) lengthy novel sequence by one of the greatest storytellers of our day, Stephen King. Many people have tried to bring The Dark Tower to the screen, for the sequence has gained legions of fans for its rich mythology, engaging characters, and imagination, apparently (I should point out that while I’m a big fan of King, I’ve always shied away from these particular books for no reason I can easily articulate). On the other hand, the two most famous of these were Ron Howard and JJ Abrams, neither of whom I would honestly describe as a visionary film-maker, so maybe that was for the best.

Or maybe not. What exactly, you may be well be wondering, is the Dark Tower, and why have they made a film about it? Well, fasten your seatbelts and I will have a go at explaining. The Dark Tower, you see, is the metaphysical bulwark which supports the structure of all the worlds of the multiverse, which stands at the centre of creation and holds back eternal, demon-infested darkness. Yes, apparently the Dark Tower holds back the darkness, which is a little counter-intuitive, but I shouldn’t worry too much about it. No-one in the movie actually visits the Dark Tower, it is just a sort of symbol or plot device – the movie could have been called The Pink Bus Stop or The Tartan-patterned Shed and it would be functionally exactly the same, just with a lower special-effects budget. (Although neither of those would have the same kind of archetypal mythic resonance. The whole movie is very big on symbolism and archetypes, which may be one of the reasons why it is as coherent as it is.)

Well, anyway, for reasons best known to himself, evil sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to knock the Dark Tower down and end the world, using the psychic powers of children whom his bestial minions have kidnapped from across the multiverse. This is causing mysterious earthquakes in the various worlds, and giving nightmares to Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young lad living in New York City with his mum and stepfather. His various visions of the Tower, of Walter, and of an enigmatic gunfighter (Idris Elba) just lead everyone to conclude he’s one book short of a novel sequence, and when Walter’s minions turn up offering to take him to a Special Clinic for Troubled Children he finds it very hard to say no.

But say no Jake does, and he manages to find his way into one of the other worlds, looking for the gunfighter. His name turns out to be Roland, and he is in fact a Gunslinger (the capitalisation seems non-negotiable), the last of an ancient and noble order of warriors, carrying a pair of pistols forged from the metal of Excalibur. Or something. However, Roland is having a bit of a crisis and seems in danger of becoming terminally grumpy (as you can imagine, this element of the character really plays to Elba’s strengths as an actor). However, the chance to kill Walter (with whom he has an old beef) perks Roland up a bit and he and Jake set off to find Walter’s supervillain lair together…

Hollywood Marketing Dogma #1 these days is that, if you’re promoting a product with an established following, you have to keep the fans onside, or else your movie could end up capsized by the bad buzz before it even reaches theatres. The alarm and disquiet with which early news of The Dark Tower was greeted by fans of the books probably chilled the soul of the marketing department – for one thing, this is an adaptation of a 4,250 page novel sequence that clocks in at a far-from-expansive 95 minutes, and for another, it’s not really a straight adaptation of the novel sequence at all, but also to some extent a sequel (I get the impression things get metaphysically weird on a fairly regular basis in Dark Tower-land).

On the other hand, while not many people seem to be going to see The Dark Tower, the ones who do seem to be having a reasonably good time – critics excepted. And the fact is that it’s not a terrible movie by any means, and indeed has some interesting things going on in it. It very much reminded me of a bunch of other, thematically similar films, such as Forbidden Kingdom and The Last Action Hero, in which children from ‘the real world’ find their way into a fantastical realm, hook up with a paternal tough-guy, fight against evil, and so on. Nothing wrong with that – a sturdy narrative archetype, I would say. The distinctive and perhaps problematic thing about The Dark Tower is that its fantasy element is not drawn from something as resonant as Chinese mythology or cinema itself, but has been created almost out of whole cloth – you’ve got gunslingers, Dark Towers, parallel worlds, high-tech dimensional portals, demons, psychic powers, evil sorcerers, and monsters in stolen human skins, all crammed into the same movie. Being hit with all this stuff at the same time is admittedly rather bracing, but at the same time you feel perpetually on the verge of being flummoxed by it all.

I say this as someone who is more than passingly familiar with the Stephen King opus. I like King more than many people (my writing coach, for instance, is by no means a big fan), and ideally this film would tip people off to the fact he’s not just a big-selling horror author, but the creator of a complex and intricate fictional universe of his own – there are various references to other King stories threaded into this one, which you don’t even have to be that big a fan to spot (in addition to Jake’s psychic powers being nicknamed ‘shining’, there’s a spot of free publicity for the forthcoming It movie, while Walter is so transparently another incarnation of King’s recurring supervillain Randall Flagg you nearly expect the revelation of his true identity to be a plot point). On the other hand, if you’re not into Stephen King I suspect all of this will just add to your sense of bafflement.

Perhaps it’s the need to keep the wider audience on board that is responsible for the film’s structure feeling so very, very familiar. You can almost see the flags popping up as the various points in Classic Story Structure are reached and ticked off. For all its textural and thematic weirdness, the movie is on some level very routine, even predictable, and perhaps this is the single biggest problem with it. It’s almost like taking pieces of ancient, gnarled, mysterious wood, from trees at the edge of the world, and then using them to make flat-pack office furniture, in strict accordance with the assembly instructions. The film should really be bigger, richer, weirder, more sprawling, and definitely have more than three significant characters.

That said, all three of the leads are perfectly acceptable, with McConaughey in particular seeming to have fun with his role. The production values and direction are also never less than thoroughly competent, and occasionally you do get a glimpse of the remarkable film which could be made from this material – some of Tom Holkenborg’s rousing music, for instance, seems to have wandered in from a rather more effective fantasy adventure movie.

No doubt the producers would agree, defending this movie by saying it’s only intended as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythology, with various TV series and sequels in the works which will explore this universe further. Well, if so, that nearly reduces The Dark Tower to the status of the world’s longest and most expensive teaser trailer – and one which doesn’t really do its job, for at the end you don’t really feel a burning desire to spend any more time with these characters. The uninspired efficiency of the movie robs it of genuine power and magic. It seemed like everyone had forgotten about the famous hoodoo afflicting Stephen King, where for the longest time his most famous and accomplished novels would come a terrible cropper when they were adapted for the screen. It seems to be back in full effect as far as The Dark Tower is concerned. Still, not an actively bad film, just a rather odd and not particularly exciting one.

 

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There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a SF and/or fantasy franchise to tear.

-Rudyard Kipling (almost)

The sleeping colossus of the genre stirs once more, and an uneasy stirring it is too (if you ask me). For, yea, it is Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, marking the 50th anniversary of the dearly loved series. Those who were less than delighted with JJ Abrams’ crack at Trek and overjoyed when he pushed off to finally make the Star Wars movie he’d clearly actually wanted to do all along could perhaps have been forgiven a brief mutter of ‘Oh no, not again’ when the director’s chair for this landmark was given to the gentleman responsible for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, along with several other films in that series. Was this to be a worthy and respectful tribute to one of the most successful media franchises of all time? Or just Star Trek: Qo’NoS Heist, or something of that ilk?

stbey

Well, the movie opens with the Enterprise three years into its five year mission (i.e. at around the point the original show finally got canned). Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is restless and considering his position, possibly because he’s not allowed to wear nearly as many hats in this film as the last one. Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto) also has issues nibbling away at him, but being Spock doesn’t really talk about them much.

Shortly after arriving at the Federation outpost of Yorktown (presumably a reference to Gene Roddenberry’s original pitch for the series back in 1964, when the ship was named the Yorktown, not the Enterprise), Kirk is given the mission of penetrating a nearby nebula (NB: probably not something you’d describe as a nebula if you were an actual astronomer, but I digress) and rescuing the crew of a crashed ship. Off they pop, confidently enough, but of course things never go smoothly for the Enterprise crew and they find a fleet of hostile aliens waiting for them under the command of the malevolent Krall (Idris Elba, who like many actors before him struggles a bit under heavy prosthetics). Krall, for reasons which a) constitute a plot spoiler and b) don’t really stand up to much in the way of scrutiny anyway, is determined to destroy the Federation using one of those alien superweapons which can be conveniently disassembled into portable bits, and the final bit he needs is somewhere on the Enterprise

In the movie’s first big set piece sequence, the alien fleet swats the Enterprise out of space with distressing ease, setting up the middle act of the film, in which the various crew have different adventures on Krall’s home planet before coming together again to do battle with him at the end. And I suppose this is a solid enough structure for what is a competently assembled SF action-adventure movie, if a bit hard to tell what’s going on at some points but what do you expect these days, fun for all the family with some not-bad jokes along the way (credit due, I suppose, to scriptwriters Doug Jung, whose only previous work I am aware of was the movie Confidence, and me ol’ mucker Simon Pegg, who does double duty as Scotty as in the last two movies).

And yet, and yet… In interviews about the film Pegg talked about the studio’s concerns with regard to it, and what particularly caught my attention was his revelation that ‘the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y’. The studio producing a Star Trek movie, concerned that their Star Trek movie might have been too Star Trek-y? What kind of Bizarro World (or, if you will, Mirror Universe) have we accidentally slipped into?

Well, I imagine the studio people will be quite relieved, for I doubt anyone will consider Star Trek Beyond to be too Star Trek-y. For those of us who do like Star Trek to be Star Trek-y, however, and can’t see the point of making Star Trek if it’s not going to be Star Trek-y, there will be the problem of how to come to terms with a Star Trek film that is (in various ways) quite Star Wars-y (again) but particularly (in some other ways) very Guardians of the Galaxy-y. The humour in this film isn’t a million miles away from that in the Marvel movie, the plot is to some degree similar, and its use of music in particular seems very much drawn from James Gunn’s film.

In short, for those of us who’ve (fairly) faithfully stuck with Star Trek since the late 70s, if not earlier, what’s on screen here has very little of the look and feel of the franchise in any of its previous incarnations. Yorktown bears no resemblence to any Starbase we’ve seen before, instead looking more like the space station from Elysium or a screen realisation of one of Iain Banks’ Culture Orbitals. There were claims that the script here would ‘deconstruct’ the whole premise of Star Trek and wrestle with the whole basis of the Federation and Starfleet’s mission statement. I saw no sign of that – instead there’s just a bad guy who’s gone a bit mad and wants to smash stuff up – not many shades of grey or opportunities for moral inquiry there.

The film-makers seem to be under the impression that the essence of Star Trek is limited entirely to the seven most prominent characters of the original TV series and their interactions with each other, and I suppose on these terms the film is something of a success: Quinto and Karl Urban are highly effective in replicating the Spock-McCoy chemistry and banter, but you never really forget that this is just a very accomplished act of homage or replication: karaoke Star Trek, which only works because it’s drawing on the work of other people long ago. All of the bits of the film which managed to genuinely move me were the ones drawing heavily on my affection for the old show and the old movies – how can you not feel a pang at seeing the Enterprise ripped apart? How can you not be moved when a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock appears, or one of the entire original cast? The fact remains that they feel weirdly out of place here, though.

The film makes a kind of stab at acknowledging Star Trek‘s heritage by inserting various references to things like the Xindi and Romulan Wars of the 22nd century, and including an old starship of a design that anyone who remembers Star Trek: Enterprise will find rather familiar. But even here I’m not completely sure the continuity hangs together, and it is kind of bizarre that the key acknowledgement made is to Enterprise, the version of Star Trek that got the franchise cancelled again after 18 years on TV.

Maybe it’s just me, but as I’ve said before, the joy and magic of Star Trek doesn’t lie in one particular set of characters, not even Kirk, Spock, and company – the great achievement of Trek is the sheer size and scope of its universe. Star Trek isn’t just the original Enterprise on its five year mission – it’s the Genesis Device, and Sulu captaining the Excelsior, and the battle against the Borg at Wolf 359, and Worf’s discommendation, and the Q Continuum, and the Dominion War, and even (God help us) the Kazon-Ogla and the Temporal Cold War and…

Needless to say none of these things are alluded to in Star Trek Beyond, but more importantly it doesn’t feel like any of them could even happen in the same universe in which this film is set. Star Wars is rock’n’roll, Star Trek is classical music – so goes the shorthand. This film feels more like hip hop, but even so, that’s still not the same thing.

Does any of this matter? To the wider audience and the suits at the studio, I suppose not: people will have a good time and the film will likely turn a tidy profit (a further offering bringing back Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk is already in the pipeline). If you don’t especially like or care that much about Star Trek this is a jolly blockbuster which will not challenge you too much. But if you do love Star Trek – all of the first 40 years of it, not just the original series and early movies – I can’t imagine it will do much for you, for it seems to me that it’s just using the name-recognition factor of the brand to promote a rather generic space adventure movie.

I am probably the worst person to give this movie an objective review. A rather dismal trend has developed over the last few years where all the things I used to love have taken on strange new forms which I find it hard to summon up much affection for: Moffat Doctor Who, Disney Star Wars, the last couple of James Bond films and Abrams Star Trek. So it may very well just be me unable to accept that the world has changed. But what can I say? When you come to love something as a child, then that love has a purity and intensity that never completely goes away, no matter how old you grow. So I will just say this: is this a competently made contemporary SF adventure with moments of warmth and charm? Yes, absolutely. Is it a worthy tribute to fifty years of Star Trek? Um, no, not at all – but in a sense there was never any reason to expect it would be. Return to your slumber, colossus.

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James Watkins’ Bastille Day opens with as brazen as piece of gratuitous female nudity as you will see in any film this year, proceeds to include as many low-fi foot chases, car chases, punch-ups and gun battles as the plot can contain while remaining even remotely credible, and concludes with its star, Idris Elba, belting out a funky number over the closing titles. There is no great mystery as to what kind of film this is – in fact there is something quite endearing about just how up-front it is about its ambitions. Bastille Day really, really wants to be a Luc Besson movie (with a side order of ‘star vehicle for currently-hot Idris Elba’).

bastille-day

All the Besson tropes are here: the cheerful purloining of action movie tropes from American cinema, a plot that does the business as long as you don’t look too hard, very decent action sequences, and some rather underwritten female characters. I genuinely thought this was a Besson project while I was watching it, so note-perfect is the imitation of style. But apparently not.

The odd thing is that this is in many ways a British movie trying to copy a French director best known for making films in an American style. As things get under way, we meet American pick-pocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden, who’s British), who spends most of his time ripping off tourists in Paris, where he lives. However, things take a left turn for him when he unwisely steals the bag of a young French woman called Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon, who’s Canadian), coerced into planting a bomb by her dodgy boyfriend, rather against her better judgement.

Well, the bomb goes off, but luckily neither Mason nor Zoe are injured. However, Mason is now being hunted by the authorities as a suspected terrorist, and the people who made the bomb would quite like a word with Zoe, too. As luck would have it, the CIA’s Paris section have a head start on finding Mason, and the case is assigned to agent Briar (Elba, who’s also British). Elba is introduced in one of those scenes where his weaselly superior tries to drag him over the coals for being an undisciplined maverick, but he’s such a badass dude that he reduces his boss to an impotent fury with a few cool putdowns. Honestly, watching this scene was like seeing an old friend again – I wanted to stand up in the cinema and give it a big hug.

Anyway, Briar’s bull-at-a-gate approach to intelligence work means that ten minutes after his CIA supervisor (Kelly Reilly, who’s also British) instructs him to discreetly locate and detain Mason, he is chasing him over the rooftops of Paris while waving a gun. Needless to say, this is Elba’s movie not Madden’s, so he catches him and the two can get to work on their buddy-movie rapport (not to mention progressing the plot). It transpires that dark forces are at work seeking to foment panic and chaos in the French capital ahead of the Bastille Day parade, but not all is quite as it appears to be…

First things first: going ahead and releasing a movie about terrorist attacks in Paris is a ballsy choice at the moment, although my understanding is that this movie was shot in 2014, when the subject matter must have seemed slightly less provocative. This is especially the case given that Bastille Day is very definitely pitched at the no-brainer end of the market – this is not a film of big ideas, intended to make one reconsider the impact of terrorism on modern society or the role of the state in maintaining civil order. This is a film about Idris Elba kicking people in.

That said, Bastille Day manages to get away with it, just – it certainly doesn’t come across as anything like as ugly and reprehensible as London Has Fallen, for instance – partly because Elba comes across as less of a homicidal maniac than Gerard Butler, and partly because it quickly becomes fairly clear that the film isn’t actually about ‘terrorism’, and the bad guys aren’t radicalised Muslims, but a set of stock figures who should be quite familiar to anyone who’s watched more than a handful of action movies in the last twenty years.

The film’s attempts at being contemporary are pretty much restricted to including something rather like the Occupy movement, which surely barely counts as topical any more anyway. Still, this isn’t the kind of film you go to for bold new ideas: as I said, you know pretty much from the start more or less how it’s all going to go down – a lot of running around and shouting, a little exposition (hopefully inserted as subtly and painlessly as possible), some snappy banter between our two heroes, and a big gun battle at the end.

Bastille Day provides all these things extremely competently, and Idris Elba carries the film well: although if, as many are suggesting, this is effectively his audition piece, made with an eye to becoming the next James Bond, I’m not sure it quite does the job. He can handle the tough guy stuff very well, but I’m not sure he’s quite smooth enough for Bond (novel though it would be to have Bond himself singing the theme song). Others may disagree. The film does lack a properly strong villain for him to face off against – if this really were a Besson movie, there would be someone like Matt Schulze or Tcheky Karyo having a whale of a time and chewing the scenery, but the bad guys here are extremely anonymous, which may be partly why the climax of the film feels a little underpowered and flat.

I must confess to turning up to Bastille Day with extremely modest expectations, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying the movie as much as I did. This film is not going to rock anyone’s world, or turn anyone involved into a red-hot property, but it ticks nearly every box required of it and manages to generate moments of genuine humour, suspense, and excitement. This is a very competently made mid-budget action movie, nothing more and nothing less. As such it’s exactly the film it wants to be, and well worth seeing if you like that kind of thing.

 

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