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Posts Tagged ‘Laurence Fishburne’

The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

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Even in our experience-intensive modern world, it turns out that people can go through their lives without ever having one of those normal, routine experiences that most of us take for granted. I’ve never ridden a bike, for example (well, to be honest there are many physical-type pursuits which are completely alien to me, mostly due to my total lack of coordination); I know other people who have never had a curry or flown on a plane. Nevertheless, the film-following contingent where I work were surprised to discover that in our midst was someone with a startling secret that they eventually decided to disclose. ‘I have never seen a Marvel Comics movie,’ our colleague announced.

I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, we are a compassionate bunch and rallied round, providing advice and flow-charts about how best to rectify this, which films to watch first, and which ones to possibly skip (tougher than you’d think to decide on this stuff: personally, and I know this is controversial, I think Iron Man 3 is one of the studio’s most entertaining films, but it’s hardly essential to the ongoing meta-plot). It almost goes without saying that when the next Marvel film came around – and , let’s face it, it’s not like the wait is ever a particularly long one, even when the UK release gets delayed, as has been the case here – we took our colleague along to see it. ‘I can’t believe I’m finally going to see my first Marvel film!’ whispered our friend as the lights went down. There was much clasping of shoulders and smiling; we may actually have shared a moment, swept away on a tide of heady anticipation and self-regarding smugness.

The film in question was Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, the follow-up to the same director’s Ant-Man from 2015. Of course, much water has flowed under Marvel’s bridge since then, which the film does a decent job of attempting to accommodate. As things get underway, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, who also co-wrote the film) is coming to the end of a lengthy stretch of house arrest, as a result of his role in smashing up that airport towards the end of Captain America: Civil War. He is estranged from his former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who are on the run from the authorities for providing him with the Ant-Man suit in the first place.

But Hank and Hope are not just quietly hiding: Scott’s visit to the quantum realm of the micro-universe at the end of the first film has given them hope that Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) may still be alive down there somewhere, and having been working on a plan to rescue her. It turns out that in order to do this, they need Scott’s help, and so he is quietly extracted from house arrest and whisked off to assist.

However, it turns out that many people are aware of the potential value of Pym’s shrinking technology and keen to get their hands on it, which will inevitably complicate proceedings quite considerably. Around to help or possibly hinder the trio are Scott’s old cell-mate Luis (Michael Pena), criminal and restauranteur Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), Pym’s old associate Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), and an unstable young woman known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) – she’s not really evil, just going through a phase. Luckily Hank has provided Hope with her own (somewhat more capable) suit, and she has taken up her mother’s mantle as the Wasp…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Marvel Studios’ twentieth film, although strictly speaking it should probably be the nineteenth: attentive readers may be wondering just how the plot outlined above meshes with the state of affairs pertaining at the end of Infinity War, the previous film in the series. Well, suffice to say that Marvel have got a little bit creative with the chronology of their films, and all is explained before the end of the credits (one can only hope that Ant-Man actually appears in the Infinity War follow-up). Possibly more important is another aspect of the relationship between Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp – to my mind, the first film rather benefited from being released immediately after one of the studio’s less accomplished and purely entertaining films (Age of Ultron), for its breezy lightness was a refreshing contrast. Infinity War, on the other hand, is a great summation of what Marvel have achieved over the last ten years, and surely Ant-Man and the Wasp runs the risk of seeming just a bit small-time and disposable in comparison?

Well, to some extent this is true, at least – there are only a handful of characters with your actual superpowers in this film, as opposed to a couple of dozen (Fishburne does not actually get to appear as Goliath, who’s one of those characters most notable for the circumstances of their death anyway). And, like the first film, this is as close to being a pure comedy as anything that Marvel has released – although, to my mind, the films have generally been getting lighter over the last few years.

In many ways this one put me in mind of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in that the key change behind the scenes is that different writers are responsible for the script. My main problem with the second Guardians film was that it didn’t feel particularly well-structured or cohesive as a story, and the same is really true here. The film kind of plays out as an extended farce or sitcom, with Scott more than once having to rush home to fool the FBI into thinking he hasn’t breached the terms of his house arrest – it’s much more about overcoming obstacles and minor antagonists than actually defeating a villain. Ghost (quite well-played by John-Kamen) isn’t actually malevolent as such, and may even strike some viewers as being somewhat sympathetic.

Certainly it’s not quite the radical development of the first film that the title might suggest: the movie still feels very much focused on Scott, although the Wasp does get some good action sequences. You might just as accurately call it Ant-Man, the Wasp, and the Wasp’s Dad (who was the first Ant-Man), because Douglas is doing good work in a prominent role. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of conceptual progression here, building on ideas only touched on in the first film. The film’s plot may be a little underpowered and lacking in focus, but what keeps it very watchable and entertaining is the way in which the concept of things being grown and shrunk to the wrong size is explored. There’s a delightfully fantastical quality to it, particularly in the closing chase, with people, vehicles and even buildings undergoing rapid changes in scale at a frantic pace. And, of course, the film’s more comedic moments are solidly written and performed by people who are simply very good at that sort of thing. A lot of people in Marvel movies have been trying to be funny recently, but none of them are quite as good as Paul Rudd, if you ask me: one can only hope the studio makes more use of him in this respect (the campaign starts now: put Ant-Man in the Avengers!).

So, in the end, is this one of the essential keystone movies in Marvel’s project? No, absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining and very inventive addition to the MCU canon. I’m not quite sure where they can take these characters next, should a third movie prove forthcoming, but for the time being this is a fun, accessible, undemanding film that most people will probably enjoy.

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I occasionally talk about what I call a ‘Good Bad Movie’ and I suppose what I mean by this is that it’s a good example of a film from one of those genres which never normally win the Best Picture Oscar (not all genres being created equal, after all: musicals, westerns, and based-on-true-events films are somehow respectable in a way that horror movies, kung fu pictures, and fantasy films normally aren’t). Now this isn’t an absolute division, of course, because sometimes you can have genuinely good films from often-dubious genres (The Matrix being the obvious example of a great film which manages to be both science fiction and a martial arts action film). But on the whole it’s a reasonable working assumption.

I suppose it’s quite appropriate that I just mentioned The Matrix, for the film currently under consideration isn’t a million miles away from the Wachowskis’ magnum opus, one way or another. I refer, of course, to Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, which is, if anything, an Absolutely Outstanding Bad Movie, but still in no danger whatsoever of being mistaken for a Good Movie. It is, as they frequently say, a funny old world.

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Keanu Reeves returns as the eponymous dapper apocalypse Jonathan Wick (we already wondered why the film isn’t called Jon Wick the first time around). As the film gets underway, our hero is finishing up some outstanding business from the original film, namely retrieving his car which is still in the possession of the Russian Mafia. The sheer quantity of property damage involved, not to mention the eventual repair bill on the car, or indeed the enormous body count Wick racks up, might lead one to surmise it would be easier to just buy a new car. But this is not Wick’s style, for he is a man of fierce integrity, not to mention a short fuse. (The publicity for this film ploughs on with not-quite-there taglines like ‘John Wick goes off’ and ‘John Wick: don’t set him off’. Guys, your tagline is ‘John Wick: he’s got a short fuse’. Trust me on this.)

Well, anyway, car retrieved, Wick retires to his lovely home with his faithful hound, intent on getting on with his everyday life as a grief-stricken ex-hitman. Needless to say this is not to be, as who should turn up on his doorstep but ambitious underworld leader Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who Wick owes a favour. Since Wick’s back on the scene, D’Antonio wants him to do one last job, involving an assassination in Rome that will have a huge impact on the global underworld. (Needless to say, upon Wick’s arrival in Rome, a vaguely nervous-looking acquaintance enquires if he’s in town to bump off the Pope.)

Needless to say there are twists, turns, and double-crosses aplenty, and before too long all men’s hands are turned against our taciturn anti-hero (not to mention the hands of quite a few women, too). Can Wick get out of this latest predicament in one piece? And can he do so without breaching any of the rather arcane regulations of his curious fraternity?

The central paradox, or perhaps joke, of the John Wick series persists, which is that these are films about a man frequently driven by enormous passions, but portrayed by an actor not exactly noted for the breadth and subtlety of his emotional range. But, in an odd way, Keanu’s performance is by no means problematic, and it’s actually very hard to imagine anyone else being quite as good as he is here. Because he is good: this film is utterly absurd, and it would be a terrible mistake to approach it as a genuine drama. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to start winking too openly at the camera. Reeves finds the middle ground that makes the film work, and so do most of the other major performers – Ian McShane comes back from the first one, and turning up for a fruity cameo is Laurence Fishburne.

If you were so minded, you could spend a whole evening picking holes in the plot of John Wick: Chapter 2, and pointing out the various ways that the story is actually quite silly. Certainly bits of it are slightly hackneyed or repetitive – you may recall that in the first film Wick’s car was nicked and his puppy executed; well, this time around someone blows up his house. No doubt in the third film he will be sent off on another rampage of bloody slaughter after someone hacks his Facebook account or something. The world of the film, with a Hitman Hilton in every major city, and every criminal figure beholden to the same set of unbreakable arcane regulations, bears very little relation to reality, either.

All of this basically misses the point – which is that this is an action film, and all the rest of it exists to bridge and facilitate the action sequences which are the heart of the film. The connective material is arch and knowing enough to be fun – Peter Serafinowicz turns up as the world’s most violent wine-waiter – and the set-pieces themselves are some of the purest examples of sheer adrenaline fun as I’ve seen at the cinema in a very long time. There’s an action sequence in a maze of mirrors which is clearly a homage to Enter the Dragon, while elsewhere Keanu gets to display his mastery of kung fu, gun fu, car fu and even pencil fu.

John Wick: Chapter 2 won’t be for everyone, but it hits every target it sets for itself and the result is a terrific piece of entertainment, provided super-stylish, super-absurd action movies are your cup of tea. This is an example of a sequel which builds on the original in every way: it’s bigger, brighter, more absurd, and has much more swagger and fun than the first. Needless to say the door is left wide open for the third episode – if it’s as good as this one, that will be a significant achievement, for John Wick: Chapter 2 is a treat.

 

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It’s a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.

Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney’s latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I’m-sick-of-waiting-let’s-just-release-the-damn-thing, but I doubt it.

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I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today’s most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my friends is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop’s hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It’s telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)

Despite all that, it’s Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).

Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship’s systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future…

If you’ve just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.

However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I’ve come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that’s the case. It’s quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer’s keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.

One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he’s okay here, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but on the other hand it’s not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.

In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can’t base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there’s a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn’t appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it’s also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.

(It’s a minor issue, but the film’s world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been ‘thousands’ of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It’s like The Forever War with nicer decor.)

The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don’t think it’s up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It’s not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it’s that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn’t call it a good one, either.

 

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Once more unto the Phoenix in Jericho for a visit to their Discover Tuesdays strand, which happens on (duh) a Tuesday, hence no need to fear the blight of allocated seating. Discover Tuesdays is a pretty eclectic catch-all receptacle for any films Picturehouse have snagged the rights to but which they think are too fringe, minority, or experimental to warrant a proper run across the week – and when you consider their major release this week was a searing behind-the-scenes documentary about couture, you may get some idea of just how fringe, minority, and experimental some of the Discover Tuesdays films turn out to be (the last one I went to was, I believe, a true-life courtroom-drama documentary about dinosaur fossil smuggling).

It’s a tough call as to whether William Eubank’s The Signal is more or less out there than that, for all that this initially looks like a fairly conventional indie film drama. This is the point at which I have to go on the record and say that this review may end up being rather shorter than most, or at least continue an even higher than usual ratio of pointless waffle to useful information. I really wanted the experience of being totally surprised by a film, and so, beyond knowing the name of one of the actors and a few vague clues as to the genre of the thing, I deliberately avoided all knowledge of what was to come. I think this added to my enjoyment of the movie immensely – and having spent what feels like about four months watching, analysing, and discussing just the trailers for Age of Ultron, I can’t help thinking this would be true of a lot of other films, too. I don’t want to spoil The Signal any more than I have to, so henceforth I shall be very circumspect about the plot and so on.

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Brenton Thwaites plays Nic, a young computer science student engaged on a roadtrip across America with his buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend Haley (latterday Hammer starlet Olivia Cooke). Haley is moving to the West Coast and they, in theory, are helping her with her stuff, but there are various ulterior things going on too. Nic and Jonah are being plagued by a remarkably skilled hacker calling himself Nomad, and it may just be that the journey will allow them the opportunity to run their nemesis to ground and expose his true identity. Perhaps more seriously, strains are developing in Nic and Haley’s relationship – Nic is suffering from some kind of progressive medical condition (muscular dystrophy, apparently, though this isn’t made particularly explicit on screen) which will eventually put him in a wheelchair, and he is anticipating the moment when she breaks up with him on account of this. All this remains unresolved as they near their destination, which also happens to be close to the location they have tracked Nomad’s signal to: a remote shack in the Nevada desert, which initially seems to be deserted, but…

And here I must cease and desist, for the startling turns and twists the plot takes from this point on are really best experienced in a state of complete innocence.Well, I suppose I have to issue a few vague generalities, just for form’s sake and so people have a very rough idea of the tenor of proceedings: prior to this point, The Signal has looked not unlike an indie-ish drama about the lives of young people, albeit one with an impressively high level of computer science literacy. It proves to be very much otherwise, as Laurence Fishburne appears as an enigmatic figure in a hazmat suit, and the film reveals itself to be… well, from a very different genre.

Some of the advance publicity that I did see for The Signal compared it to a Shane Carruth movie, specifically the mesmerically cryptic Upstream Color, and I can sort of see where this comparison is coming from. However, it doesn’t quite manage to consistently strike an authentically Carruthian tone, because most of the time I felt I had a pretty good idea of what was going on from one scene from the next, at least superficially (I stress, most of the time: there’s one sequence with a cow and what seems to be an invisible monster I couldn’t quite figure out). This isn’t to say that the deeper workings of the plot are always apparent: in fact, as the film progresses, it almost gives the impression that it’s unravelling into spectacular visual and narrative incoherence, to increasingly stunning (but baffling) effect.

And yet, and yet. The Signal is ultimately an SF movie, and – perhaps – the most truly SF movie I’ve seen in a long time. Defining what SF actually is is one of those proverbially difficult things, but one suggestion which stuck with me is that it deals with the idea of conceptual breakthrough: the revelation and consequences of discovering that Things Are Not As We Thought They Were. The makers of The Signal have suggested that it is ultimately a drama about the conflict between logic and emotion, and to some extent this is apparent when watching the film – but my overriding impression when watching it was of a dizzying series of narrative transitions, not always tremendously coherent, it’s true, but with a remarkable cumulative impact.

Whatever you make of the conception and plotting of the film, it features impressive performances from the key performers – Laurence Fishburne is on particularly fine form – and it is visually highly impressive. Possibly The Signal is ultimately just a triumph of style over substance – and simply on the basis of the film’s technical virtuosity I can see William Eubank having talks with a couple of big-name movie-making outfits in the very near future – but it’s still a fascinating piece of storytelling legerdemaine with its own slightly unearthly sense of style about it. I got a very real kick out of watching it, and I’m very curious to see what Eubank does next.

 

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When I was but a lad one of my favourite stories was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – not Verne’s original novel (which I have since discovered to be a rather wearisomely didactic travelogue), but an illustrated adaptation of the 1954 Richard Fleischer movie. I pored over this time after time and you can surely imagine my excitement when it was re-released to cinemas. However, only trauma was to result as I came down with something nasty in the very same week and our wise old family practitioner advised that, much better though I was feeling, it was still not a good idea for me to go to the cinema while I was still potentially infectious.

Well, I’ve been pretty poorly again recently, but – as luck would have it – health service cut-backs make it actually quite difficult to see a doctor. So the decision as to whether or not it was advisable to go to the cinema this week was entirely down to your correspondent. You know, I take my social responsibilities quite seriously, and would hate to think I had frivolously passed on my particular brand of lurgy to anyone simply because I wanted to see a film. In the end I decided I could justify it as long as I stayed well away from other unsuspecting cinemagoers and went to a sparsely-attended matinee performance, thus absolutely minimising exposure. At least that was what I told myself on the way in on the bus, and again in the pub afterwards.

You’ll never believe it, but all this nonsense proved to be entirely apropos as the movie I ended up seeing was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which was about… well not someone recklessly going to the pictures, but still. Basically, Soderbergh’s scientifically rigorous thriller opens in the aftermath of Gwyneth Paltrow’s visit to an Asian casino, during which she has been inadvertantly exposed to a mutant pig-bat virus. This does not stop her engaging in a little extramarital whoh-ho-ho on the way back home to her something of a dim-bulb husband, Matt Damon. The mutant pig-bat virus turns out to be a) energetically lethal (which is bad news for Gwyneth and arguably Matt), and b) enthusiastically communicable (which is bad news for everyone else in the world).

Pretty soon the authorities are on the case across the world, fortuitously embodied by a flotilla of the Hollywood A-list (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, and so on). Someone buzzes off to the Far East in search of the origins of the mutant pig-bat virus, someone else heads to Gwyneth’s neck of the woods to manage efforts to control the disease there, a third someone has to co-ordinate the overall strategy, and so on. Meanwhile Matt Damon struggles to not become a paranoid germophobe and to generally get on with his life despite the fact that, for one thing, he’s not allowed to bury Gwyneth – they’d much rather she was cremated (possibly a case of ‘One flu over – the cooker’s next’).

This is a big old star-studded whopper of a movie, or so it feels while you’re watching it, and that’s by no means intended as a criticism. Soderbergh orchestrates a sprawling, multi-stranded narrative with consummate skill, and for much of its running time this is a really gripping movie. It’s more a collection of vignettes depicting various scenes of courage, integrity, foolishness, and loss, rather than a single coherent story, but on the whole this approach works pretty well. The only subplot that doesn’t quite work focusses on Jude Law, who’s playing an unpleasant and self-serving blogger. I suspect he’s supposed to be Julian Assange, which is the only reason I can think of for the ‘Hello possums!’ accent Law deploys in the role.

The Damon subplot also looks a little bit superfluous to start with, as it doesn’t really appear to be going anywhere – it’s established early on that Matt is totally immune to mutant pig-bat viruses. A lot of it is to do with the extramarital excursion Gwyneth enjoyed shortly prior to her death, which gives Damon the chance for a lot of histrionic soul-searching. (The danger here is that it could almost look like Gwyneth was struck down as a judgement on her adulterous lifestyle, a rather reactionary impression for this kind of film to give.) However, as the story of the film unfolds over weeks and months, the ‘human interest’ story with Damon’s character becomes increasingly important and it’s clear this is why his character’s been built up.

Joking apart, Scott Burns’ script really works hard to seem horribly plausible and do new things with a well-established scenario. There’s a lot of pleasingly crunchy-sounding epidemiology and virology along the way, and the progression of the crisis and the coming apart of society is, on the whole, credibly presented.

That said, most lethal-mutant-virus-threat plots conclude one of two ways – the virus never properly gets loose at all and everyone goes ‘phew’, or it does its stuff, kills 99% of the world’s population, and the handful of survivors set off to the countryside to form communes and rebuild society in a new and better form (this is often the point at which the story-proper gets going – for example, the BBC’s original Survivors, which this startlingly resembles at one point).

Except, apparently, viruses that lethal really don’t come along very often and a fatality rate of even 5% of the global population is practically unheard of. This leaves the film the problem of how to find a proper climax, given all the most dramatic stuff happens in the opening stages of a pandemic – the latter stages of the film have novelty to commend them, but there’s no substitute for proper storytelling structure! The solution Soderbergh opts for is a little dismaying – moments of jarring sentimentality start to appear with increasing frequency (many of them involving Damon’s character), until by the end they’re practically all the film has to offer. Soderbergh is too smart and classy to let his film degenerate into nothing but a schmaltzfest, but it’s a shame that the pace and tension and intelligence of the early sections of the film couldn’t have been sustained throughout.

And I suppose we must wonder what the purpose of this kind of film really is. Panic and misery and the death of millions is an odd topic for a piece of entertainment especially when the story isn’t as big on crowd-pleasing spectacle as, say, 2012. I suspect it may largely be a simple case of a ghoulish impulse of delight in seeing all the walls falling down and things becoming just about as bad as we can conceive. As a catastrophe movie, Contagion is highly intelligent, thoroughly gripping, masterfully directed and (on the whole) very well played. It’s not really a conventional story, but it’s an impressive piece of film-making – even if it’s a little short on practical advice on how to survive a global pandemic. I for one was only able to discern three such suggestions –

  • use your hand-sanitiser frequently and thoroughly
  • get your panic-buying out of the way early
  • watch out for mutant pig-bats.

Don’t have nightmares, folks.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 6th 2003:

Deadlines are unforgiving beasts, and can occasionally force one to thrust an opinion out into the world without, perhaps, giving it the due consideration it deserves. Certainly I have experienced the odd qualm over the past five-and-a-bit months about my declaration that the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded was a contender for film of the year. [And that’s understating it a bit – A] But even so I will happily maintain that it’s a very solid, ambitious and thoughtful blockbuster, with far more substance to it than almost any of the summer’s other big movies.

And the tradition is maintained, in a way, by the concluding instalment of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, which has just hit cinemas. Things looked rough for our cassock-clad crusader and his cyber spatial chums when last we saw them: a machine armada was mere hours away from breaking into the human city of Zion, and Neo had just learned his power as the One was simply another element of the machines’ control systems – but also discovered a hitherto-unsuspected ability to influence the (so-called) real world…

Well, it turns out that while his body’s in a coma, Neo’s mind has been banished to a realm beyond the Matrix under the control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence, soon to be seen in Return of the King, and not-quite-so-soon to be seen in the final Star Wars movie – do you sense a pattern developing?), an employee of the Merovingian. After seeking help from a regenerated Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster – a piece of forced recasting the film just about accommodates), Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph (Collin Chou) set off to rescue him, with the twin threats of the machine strike force and the insane Agent Smiths still looming over them…

Fans of the series will – well, they’ll all have seen it already, so I’m wasting my breath – will have been glad to learn that this is a much pacier, grittier and more straightforward movie than its immediate predecessor, having a bit more in common with the original. Even so, the start of Revolutions suggests we’re in for another mixture of computer-enhanced kung fu and an NVQ in philosophy, the Big Theme this time around – notebooks out, everyone – being Love (Richard Curtis may well sue for demarcation). But after a while the film changes both gear and tone, becoming a much more straightforward SF action-adventure, with very few scenes actually set within the Matrix itself.

This is one of a number of laudably brave choices from the Wachowski’s and one which, for me at least, pays dividends. There are still many eye-popping moments and action sequences, the standouts being a gravity-warping sequel to the original’s lobby scene and a crunchingly unballetic real-world brawl to the death. But the film’s big set piece is the assault on Zion’s docking bay by hundreds of thousands of Sentinels, and the desperate defence by the city’s people. It’s a lengthy, dazzling, special-effects blow-out that bears comparison with similar sequences in both Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the original Star Wars trilogy – and those who know me will know I can think of no higher praise than that.

The cast work wonders in managing to be more than just cyphers standing in front of bluescreen with all this going on around them. The four leads are as solid as ever, even if there’s once again relatively little Hugo Weaving this time round (though we are treated to a sly impersonation by Ian Bliss, the actor playing his human host). Collin Chou gets a beefed-up part, but alas Lambert Wilson and especially Monica Belluci may as well have not turned up for all the material they get. Mary Alice, in a very tough role, performs rather creditably, recalling Gloria Foster without being an outright copy.

With all this good stuff going on, then, I’m sorry to have to say that the bottom line is that The Matrix Revolutions is actually quite disappointing. This is solely because the script skimps unforgivably when it comes to the final stages of the story, which seem underdeveloped and unclear. There are quite simply too many unanswered questions at the end, which rob the climax of much of the power it deserves. (And, depressingly, the door is subtly but clearly left ajar for another instalment should the principals’ finances dictate it at some point in the future). I’m loath to say more, because this is still a breathlessly enjoyable adventure and a conclusion, of sorts, to the story. But the fact remains that it’s only as a visual-effects spectacle that The Matrix Revolutions is truly satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 22nd 2003: 

It has become something of a cliché, but nevertheless a true one, that no-one saw the original Matrix coming. In the summer of 1999 the imagination of the cinema going world had been seduced with the promise of duelling Jedi, droid armies on the march, and the rebirth of the Star Wars legend – and so the impact of the Wachowski brothers’ vision was only accentuated, coming out of nowhere as it did.

This time round things are different. Only a select few films of recent years have been so keenly anticipated as the follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded. This time everyone is watching (the most dedicated through ray-bans). We’ve been here before, of course, and while sometimes our hopes have been transcended, more often we have known the taste of bitter disappointment. So, what’s it to be this time – another breathtaking Two Towers, or a grim revisitation of Attack of the Clones?

Well, readers, cutting to the chase, and adopting the Keanu Reeves idiom, the answer is this: Whoah. In every way, and in the best possible way, The Matrix Reloaded is a mind-boggling experience, and a near-total success.

Six months have passed since Neo (Reeves) discovered his powers as the One, in which time he and the other human warriors have freed many more minds from slavery in the Matrix. But all he, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have achieved is threatened when it is discovered that the machines have launched a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the free city of Zion, which will be destroyed in a matter of days if the assault is not stopped. Their quest takes them in search of the Keymaker, the only being who can give Neo access to the machine mainframe. Unfortunately, Neo’s old adversary Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has acquired unusual new abilities of his own and is determined to get his revenge…

The success of the original Matrix rested upon several things: its unique visual style and startling innovations in effects technology, its wholesale appropriation of the energy and grace of Hong Kong cinema, and its willingness to couple both these things to a script that wasn’t afraid to be cerebral and explore quite complex philosophical concepts.

Well, this potent mixture of pizzazz, pistols, and epistemology is once again at the heart of the film. But there are new elements, too – after a few appetising pieces of action, the Wachowski’s unexpectedly – and probably wisely – take some time to explore new areas of their story and add texture to the existing ones, while establishing’s Reloaded’s themes – control, destiny, choice, and belief. So we see Zion, and the effect Neo’s omnipotence has had both on him and on the people around him. (Several plot elements that will only really come to fruition in Revolutions are also established ). The true nature of the Oracle (the late Gloria Roberts) is also revealed, something which in itself opens up new possibilities.

With things thus set up, the film proceeds to let rip with a succession of the most dazzling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid. The Office Lobby scene from the original Matrix is already legendary – very soon it will be joined by an astonishing sequence in which Neo does battle with a hundred clones of Agent Smith, plus the freeway chase, the fight in the Chateau – the list goes on and on. The special effects throughout are immaculate, but your jaw will sag open only momentarily before you are caught up again in the action.

And when the adrenaline ceases to pump, your brow will furrow as the second part of Reloaded’s formidable one-two punch hits home. If the original was a crash-course in philosophy, this is the Master’s Degree. It doesn’t detract from the story, but the ideas and concepts inherent within it are, well, challenging. Is there such a thing as true freedom? Can we ever really have a choice? Are our lives ruled by fate? Reloaded steps up to tackle all these issues and does so pretty well (although the film can be obtuse and portentous in places). It all builds up to the truly startling revelation of the source of Neo’s powers and the true history of both the Matrix and the real world.

Just so things don’t get too heavy, though, there’s a lot more humour here than there was first time round. Of course, much of this comes from Hugo Weaving’s performance as the increasingly exasperated Smith and the interaction between his various clones (that said, he doesn’t have that much screen time this time round). But there’s also a crowd-pleasing turn from Harold Perrineau as the new Operator, Link, and a very ripe and arch performance by Lambert Wilson, playing a bizarre French computer program Neo and his friends must contend with.

If Reloaded has a flaw it’s that it suffers a little from middle-episode syndrome, plunging into an ongoing story so rapidly that it takes the viewer a short while to get up to speed on what’s happening. This may have something to do with the way the film links into the animated prequel Flight of the Osiris – but then again, even Lord of the Rings has had a touch of this complaint. The end is also not entirely satisfying, opting to conclude not with any sense of closure but a giant cliff-hanger for November’s The Matrix Revolutions (a trailer for which follows the film, and it’s well worth a look unless you have to dash off to catch a bus or something).

What The Matrix Reloaded lacks in novelty value and mystery it more than makes up for in depth, diversity, energy, and sheer gob smack value (both visually and intellectually). Whether this standard can be maintained for the concluding instalment is something we’ll have to wait and see, but for now one thing is certain: we have a strong contender here for film of the year.

[Is it worth mentioning I wrote this thing only a couple of hours after watching the movie? In any case I hope readers appreciate my resisting the temptation to judiciously rewrite this to make myself sound less stupid. Hey ho. – A]

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