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Posts Tagged ‘Ruben Fleischer’

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland: Double Tap concludes in a manner which summarises the whole film rather nicely: as the credits roll, Woody Harrelson treats the audience to a full-throated rendition of the Elvis number ‘Hunka Hunka Burning Love’. It is enthusiastic, not actually awful, and indeed sort of entertaining, but it’s also a bit baffling and you do wonder what the point of it is.

It has, after all been ten years since the first film appeared. I did say at the time that a sequel would be welcome, but I didn’t quite anticipate there being quite such a long delay before its appearance – the Optimum Period Before Sequel is something we have discussed here as well, of course, and a decade is really pushing it. Even the film seems to be aware of the distinct possibility that it’s turned up too late for its own party – ‘Hello again! And after so long!’ are the opening words of Jesse Eisenberg’s voice-over. Given that the main players have gone on to bigger and more reputable things in the intervening period, one can only assume they genuinely have come back out of fondness for the material on this occasion, though I note that Emma Stone now qualifies for an ‘And’ in the credits, unsurprising given she is now probably the biggest star involved.

I could take up quite a lot of space listing all the various handwaves the film deploys and the ways in which it kind of demands the audience cut it some slack – the main one is to do with just how much time has elapsed since the original movie. None of the zombies have actually rotted away to nothing (then again, this is almost a convention of the zombopocalypse genre), and there are vague references to ‘a few years’ having gone by. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin was 13 when she made the first film and is very visibly 23 now, so they do have to sort of address this. What it all means is that from the start the film demands the audience be complicit in its silliness and the fact it doesn’t really hold together as anything other than a knowing piece of popcorn entertainment.

Anyway: as the film starts, the quartet of survivors – Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Breslin) – have made the derelict White House their new home, mainly because this is just a funny idea. The plot struggles a bit before managing to contrive stresses within the group that result in the two women departing, leaving the men behind. Columbus is initially bereft by the departure of the love of his life, but then comes across Madison (Zoey Deutch), an epically dim young woman who’s been living in a fridge since the collapse of civilisation. Then Wichita reappears, delivering the news that Little Rock’s rebelliousness has reached the point where she is now heading for Graceland in the company of a pacifist folk-singer.

Needless to say, the group agree to put their differences aside and make sure Little Rock is all right, although the presence of Madison amongst them inevitably causes some friction. A bigger concern is the appearance of a new and much deadlier breed of zombie, which they are bound to encounter if they go back on the road…

When Zombieland initially came out I was rather positive about it, noting the surprising longevity of the zombie boom which was kicked off by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland in 2002. That was ten years ago, and things seem to have got to the point where the zombie movie has become something of a staple of the horror genre: doing a new zombie-themed TV show or movie or book or comic isn’t really noteworthy anymore – just more of the same. Double Tap acknowledges this when it jokily refers to the wide availability of zombie-themed entertainment these days.

It doesn’t actually try to spoof or parody the zombie genre any more than the original film, though, nor is it a particularly serious attempt at an actual horror movie – there is plenty of gore and splatter in the course of the story, naturally, but it’s only fleetingly scary. Nothing is taken seriously enough to be actually disturbing or frightening. Instead, this is basically just a rather offbeat comedy film which happens to feature a handful of elaborate sequences with the stars blowing the heads off undead extras with impressively big guns.

So how does it hold together as a comedy? Well, I did kind of fear the worst for the first few minutes of the film, as it really does struggle to find its groove, with the various developments in the relationships between the quartet feeling laboriously contrived, and good jokes being rather thin on the ground (the film is set in a world where the Trump presidency never happened – one good thing about a zombie apocalypse, maybe – so any satire derived from the characters being in the White House is only implicit). However, once the plot is laid in, and especially once Deutch’s character appears, it does pick up quite considerably and there are some very funny moments.

These are mostly due to the skill and efforts of the cast – Harrelson is on particularly good form, though Eisenberg and Stone also contribute deft comic performances – because the script itself is really all over the place when it comes to things like the actual plot. The story is episodic to the point of feeling actually disjointed, with weird digressions and tangents happening throughout, regardless of whether they actually make a great deal of sense (at one point Tallahassee and Columbus meet their near-doubles, Albuquerque and Flagstaff) or advance the story. The film seems to take a (not inappropriate) shotgun approach to comedy, blasting away wildly at anything in sight in the hope that at least some of the jokes will hit the mark. It just about manages to get away with it.

What is interesting, and kind of refreshing, is that as a result the film feels a bit less inhibited in terms of its humour than many modern films. By this I mean that Double Tap quite shamelessly includes jokes about dumb blondes who love pink things, gun-loving right-wingers, hippies, and so on (jokes about a hippy commune in a 2019 movie? Yes indeed. See what I mean about the film being a bit all over the place in some respects). At a time when it feels like most mainstream movies have to subject themselves to a rigorous vetting by the Progressive Agenda Committee (apparently the focus group decided it’s a much friendlier name than the Thought Police), it is nice to find a film which apparently doesn’t care at all about that sort of thing.

It doesn’t quite change the fact that Zombieland: Double Tap is really a superfluous sequel trading heavily on fond memories of the first film. As a comedy, it is funny enough to justify its existence, and it is honestly¬† quite nice to spend an hour and a half watching something so openly and inoffensively silly, intended only to entertain. It never quite trashes the memory of the first film, but neither does it really add lustre to its reputation.

 

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You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project Рthere has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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This early in the New Year, most cinemas are knee-deep either in highbrow Christmas blockbusters still hanging in there, or earnest, serious-minded Oscar contenders trying to build up some momentum ahead of the coming gong season. However, on the principle some people won’t be interested in either of those things, a few unrepentantly basic genre movies have snuck out, as usual. Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad certainly qualifies as one of them, despite the fact that the size of the budget and the calibre of the cast might indicate otherwise.

gangster-squad

This is one of those movies with no discernible ambition to do anything new; its success or failure has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with the polished assembly of parts you have probably seen before (many times before, in some cases). It’s 1949 and the rising power in the L.A. underworld is a ruthless ex-boxer turned gang boss, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He has the town in his pocket, thinks he owns enough judges and policemen to make him untouchable, deals ruthlessly with his rivals, and so on.

However, the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) is not about to roll over to this guy and assigns stone-faced veteran cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression again) to bring him down – using whatever tactics the job may require, none of that due process foolishness involved. In a slightly surprising development, O’Mara lets his heavily pregnant wife choose the other members of the team, which may explain why one of them appears to be a wild west gunslinger who’s wandered into the wrong film. O’Mara’s second in command is high-living maverick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has a special connection to the case, mainly because he’s knocking off Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone).

And you can probably write the rest for yourself: the Gangster Squad gets off to a shaky start, but soon gets the mob’s attention, things go back and forth for a while, the Squad member who’s basically been walking around with a bullseye on his face all film gets killed in a stakes-raising development, and so on. It is, to be blunt, very formulaic and highly derivative, most obviously from The Untouchables.

Having said that, just because something is formulaic that doesn’t mean it’s incompetent, and the reason cliches exist is because they actually work. Gangster Squad is a professionally assembled film, it looks polished, the characters have something of the coolness they’re clearly supposed to (they all wear fedoras – except the cowboy, who wears a stetson – and smoke like chimneys), and with a cast like this the performances are obviously going to be decent. The action scenes, which are frequent, are well-choreographed, and the plot does grip to some extent even though you nearly always know roughly what’s going to happen.

On the other hand, it would be nice for a film in this kind of hard-boiled genre to go beyond the basic requirements of the form – for instance, it’s such a relentlessly blokey film. There are two proper female characters, O’Mara’s wife and Wooters’ girlfriend. The wife spends most of the film in either the kitchen or the bathroom, tearfully asking her husband not to go off to fight (obviously he doesn’t listen to her, or there’d be no movie). Emma Stone as the girlfriend doesn’t spend the whole movie in bed, but her role is largely decorative and a real waste of her talents. Both roles are secondary to those of the men, and we never really get a sense of them as people in their own right.

Then again, it is 1949, and this is a movie aimed full-bloodedly at a male demographic. Gangster Squad has had its release date shoved back by four months to allow a major sequence to be reshot – the original featured a gunfight in a cinema, which for obvious reasons you can’t really put in an entertainment-minded movie these days. From watching this film, I can deduce that it is considered inappropriate to show people firing guns in a moviehouse, but perfectly okay to depict dozens of people being blown away by submachine guns in any other urban environment. What a curious and somewhat counterintuitive world it is we live in.

This is still a savagely violent film in places – someone gets literally ripped in half very early on – but the director seems, rather slyly, to have front-loaded it to some extent: a lot of the really intensely nasty stuff happens very early on, giving you an instant impression that this is an extremely violent movie, an impression which lingers even after the film calms down a bit. It’s not quite as graphic as it seemed at the time, now I consider it, but this is still a really strong 15 and definitely not for the squeamish.

This isn’t actually a bad film, and perhaps the fact I’ve never really been a particular fan of gangster movies is a factor in my indifference to it. It’s solid enough genre stuff, but the best thing about it is probably the late-40s art direction and costuming. But from the talent involved, you’d be forgiven for expecting something rather more striking.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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