Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Simon Pegg’

It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind of film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Things change. Once upon a time I was somewhat given to commenting on the rather languid pace at which the makers of the Mission: Impossible movies produced their wares: six year gaps between instalments not being unusual. These days, however, they’re coming out nearly as often as Bond films – though, again, the once regular-as-clockwork schedule of Eon’s franchise has rather slipped in recent years.

Even so, nineteen years on from Brian de Palma’s original movie, they’re still only up to number 5, or Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (he of The Usual Suspects renown, should the name occasion a tinkle). This time around, the story is – well, to be perfectly honest, it’s very much like the story in the last couple of films in its general tone and so on, but the particularities are as follows.

Following a preposterous sequence with Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane in flight (this is the one you may have seen in the trailers and so forth; it has virtually no connection to the main plot), the Impossible Mission Force’s government overseers come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Cruise is raving mad and shut the whole agency down. However, Cruise has come across the existence of a secret organisation dedicated to counter-intelligence, terrorism, revenge, and extortion, though it’s obviously not That One, and refuses to be packed off to the padded cell the CIA have got ready for him. (Cruise goes on the run from his own bosses with such tedious regularity in these films that it’s practically his standard operating procedure.)

Six months pass, with, we are invited to infer, Cruise leading the ham-fisted regular spooks a merry dance around the world, while back home his usual associates (primarily Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames) take a lot of stick from the new boss (Alec Baldwin) on his behalf. Anyway, Cruise invites Pegg to the opera in Vienna, not for a cultural night out but because he believes beastliness is afoot.

Of course Cruise is right and there follows a preposterous sequence in which no fewer than five people try to either shoot or blow up the Austrian Chancellor, and it seems like every loose object in the opera house contains a concealed weapon of some kind. Cruise and Pegg make contact with enigmatic British agent Rebecca Ferguson (the only female main character, and the only one required to do a scene in her pants, in case you were wondering), and this leads to the obligatory sequence in which an impregnable bank vault must be robbed. It is, naturally, preposterous.

There is a motorbike chase and then a preposterous climax based around Cruise and the gang sticking up the British Prime Minister (the PM is played by Tom Hollander as a vague and comical figure, though of course he doesn’t approach the wretchedness of the genuine article), and then… well, let’s just say that Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets played a lot.

It is all, in case you hadn’t noticed, very preposterous stuff, but then that’s what people seem to want, as it is raking in the readies and Mission: Impossible 6 is already on the drawing board. This series has become the purest of popcorn entertainment, owing no great loyalty to Bruce Geller’s classic TV series: people just go along to see each new film because it’s big and slick and loud entertainment, and it’s got some reliable, familiar faces in it.

Chief amongst those is, of course, Tom Cruise, although the confusion amongst some commentators as to what exactly’s going on with Tom Cruise’s face is not without foundation – he may well be in alarmingly good shape for a man of his age, but his face does seem, um, variable at different points of the film. Nevertheless, this remains at heart a Tom Cruise vehicle, with all the baggage that comes with it – scenes where characters exclaim that he’s a deranged obsessive take on a whole extra meaning, for instance. Early on someone says of him, ‘I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true,’ which again suggests someone somewhere is being a bit playful. Regardless, the godlike essence of Cruise and his character is ultimately confirmed – he is, apparently, ‘the living embodiment of destiny’, or words to that effect, and this is said by someone who doesn’t even like him very much. (One wonders whether the increased frequency of Cruise’s Impossible excursions may be at all linked to a slight but definite fading in his star power.)

Business as usual continues elsewhere, with much of the film’s heart and warmth coming from supporting bananas such as Pegg and Renner. Rhames gets a couple of nice moments but it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s mainly there to provide a link with previous films. There is the faintest sense of this being something of a greatest hits package, incorporating as it does a number of bits very reminiscent of previous films – bike chases, locations, and so on. There are also possibly-ominous signs of the undertaking running out of ideas – there’s a long scene expositing the plot in the third act, and I caught myself thinking ‘that guy there is going to whip off a rubber mask and reveal himself to be Tom Cruise in a minute’, and – lo! – it came to pass pretty much as I expected.

Possibly the only real innovation this time is the fact that we are back in a position where the bad guys are British. Well, not everyone from the UK turns out to be a bad guy (and the question of what someone as audibly British as Simon Pegg is doing working for the CIA is never really addressed), but the British authorities are presented as being variously corrupt, ruthless, foolish, and self-centred. All very charming I’m sure, and perhaps in some way indicative of the fact that various companies in the Middle East and Asia co-financed this movie.

But, as I believe I said, this movie is preposterous, so it’s quite difficult to get genuinely annoyed with it. It’s a good kind of preposterous, anyway – you don’t actually question the plot while it’s slipping by so agreeably, and if you won’t remember the details of the plot a couple of weeks later, so what? It’s undeniably fun while it’s in front of you, but not much more.

 

Read Full Post »

Frequent visitors may have noticed that I routinely refer to romantic comedy films as belonging to ‘the world’s most predictable genre’, and I occasionally wonder if I’m not doing them a disservice there. Sure, the outcome is never in doubt, but the same is true of virtually every other genre: in fact, you could probably argue that the very notion of genre carries with it a certain degree of predictability.

It may be I’m just letting my own personal prejudices show. Still, I try to keep an open mind, so I went to see Ben Palmer’s new film Man Up, mainly on the strength of a good trailer and the presence of the usually-reliable Simon Pegg. Despite being top-billed in a film which has, shall we say, an androcentric idiom as its title, Pegg is not playing the lead here: that duty goes to Lake Bell. Why is a film about a woman called Man Up? Join me on a strange journey where not all words mean what you might expect them to.

man_up

Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething whose disastrous relationship history has left her on the verge of giving up on romance entirely. However, a chance encounter on a train and a misplaced self-help book result in her accidentally purloining a total stranger’s blind date. He is Jack (Pegg), and the two of them hit it off so well that Nancy can’t quite bring herself to own up to the misunderstanding, even though she is technically supposed to be going to her parents’ wedding anniversary party.

Needless to say, all does not go to plan, and unfortunate encounters with obsessive old school friends and embittered ex-spouses lead to more than a few ups and downs in the course of their evening together. It transpires that neither Nancy nor Jack is quite whom they are presenting themselves to be, but should they let that get in the way of the connection they so obviously share?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. On paper Man Up does look very much like yet another crack at the same rom-com formula which British production companies have been diligently hammering out variations on for over twenty years now: an appealing, largely metropolitan setting, imported American female lead, supporting cast of well-known faces, many of them off TV (Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walter do most of the heavy lifting here), a climactic dash to deliver an impassioned emotional declaration, and so on.

This is by no means a perfect movie, but it has more about it than just a tick-list of required components. For one thing, Lake Bell may be American, but not least of her achievements in Man Up is the way she employs an immaculate English accent. I must confess I’d never heard of Bell before this movie, but she seems to be one of those annoyingly talented people who’s good at everything. We are, of course, required to believe that a stunning ex-model should have severe self-doubt and finding-a-boyfriend issues, but this is practically a genre trope, and Bell puts across Nancy’s vulnerability well. I expect Bell has the kind of looks which are routinely described as ‘striking’ or ‘strong’: quite what this is code for I’m not entirely sure, but she is an extremely beautiful woman by any rational standard.

Bell also manages to share the screen with Simon Pegg for most of the movie without finding herself being acted off it, which is also no mean feat. I would say Pegg is part of an honourable tradition of British performers who aren’t just great comedians, but great actors too: all of Pegg’s best roles address the emotional frailty and humanity of his characters, an element he plays absolutely straight, and Man Up continues this. One of the appealing things about the film is that both lead characters are pretty messed up, spending as much time squabbling as they do being, you know, actually romantic. Like all the best films of this kind, it doesn’t operate solely in terms of chocolate-box romance, but explores darker territory as well. As a result, it genuinely earns its climactic emotional pay-off between the two leads. I would say that Pegg hasn’t has such an effective foil since Jessica Stevenson in Spaced, but that might just make Nick Frost annoyed with me (not to mention Tom Cruise).

On the other hand, if Man Up is honestly a ‘romance’, that’s another word the meaning of which seems to have shifted a bit of late. Again, I expect the producers would describe it as ‘frank’ or ‘authentically contemporary’, but what this actually means is that various characters spend a slightly surprising amount of time discussing oral sex in a reasonably detailed way. I couldn’t help thinking back to Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant’s saturation F-bombing in the opening sequence felt genuinely shocking – it now feels like the product of a different and much more innocent world.

But hey ho. Such is the world in which we live. As well as the above, Man Up also has an undeniable ingenious and sharp script with some genuinely witty dialogue, and it manages to juggle all the required genre elements with sufficient skill that they at least feel relatively fresh. Parts of the plot do strain credulity a bit – Rory Kinnear’s character in particular has an absurd, cartoonish quality –  and there is at least one over-laboured sight gag, but I laughed a lot all the way through and found myself genuinely wanting the two leads to get together. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a successful film, in this genre at least.

Read Full Post »

Yet another new Vue this week, readers: I know, I know. I was all set to check out the Everyman on Baker Street, but then I had a couple of hours to spare, wandered over to Leicester Square, and found out that if I just spent the afternoon there I could enjoy a couple of new movies and a tasty Mexican-inflected burger-based meal. The only downside was that one of the movies had to be at the Leicester Square Vue, but there you go. This does at least seem to be as nice as any other Vue (which is to say, quite nice in most respects), and Leicester Square is a fun place to go to the cinema. I note that weird, costume-wearing Frenchies have already started queueing to see The Lone Ranger, a film so blatantly and painfully misconceived that it’s currently 50-50 as to whether I go to see it at all (and this is from someone who paid to watch Battleship and After Earth). Hey ho.

Anyway, the film I saw at the Leicester Square Vue was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, his latest re-teaming with writer and star Simon Pegg (not to mention co-star Nick Frost). To briefly recap, after making an name for themselves in TV, these boys scored a bit of a hit with the 2004 zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead – still pretty much the gold standard when it comes to funny zombie films – and also did rather well with the 2007 comedy action pastiche Hot Fuzz (a film I personally find somewhat less accomplished, but still bags of fun). Then Pegg and Frost went off to make Paul with someone else, a film which did quite well though it wasn’t particularly great, and Wright went off and made Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a film which didn’t do very well even though it was quite good.

Now here they are again, with what’s being advertised as the final instalment of a trilogy – helps with the marketing, I suppose, because in terms of story the three films are completely separate, not even taking place in the same genre.

The-Worlds-End-poster

This time round Pegg plays Gary King, a highly dubious and unreliable character, who at the start of the film is intent on reuniting the gang of his teenage years. Frost plays his best friend Andy, while comprising the rest of the crew are Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman. Many years ago this bunch set out to complete an epic pub crawl in their home town, but failed: now Gary is insisting they give it another try.

However, the freewheeling teenagers of decades before have grown up to be lawyers, estate agents, and so on, and even getting everyone back together is a challenge. Slowly the realisation dawns that Gary himself hasn’t appreciably grown up at all, and the question of exactly what his motivation for this reunion is becomes increasingly pressing.

Several pubs into the crawl, of course, things take a rather different and unexpected turn, as does the tone of the film. This does rather come out of nowhere, if you haven’t seen the trailer anyway, but suffice to say that, as usual, what started as a comedy turns into a different sort of genre movie entirely…

I seem to recall being instinctively well-disposed towards Shaun of the Dead when it came out in 2004, mainly because I’d met Simon Pegg the year before and he turned out to be one of the good guys. (Pegg’s rise to something approaching bona fide moviestardom since then has been gratifying.) I find myself equally inclined to say nice things about The World’s End, but again I am unsure whether this is simply due to the quality of the film, or the fact it seems precision-aimed at me as its target audience.

Because this is essentially a film about looking down the barrel of forty, realising your youth is all but over, and coming to terms with the fact that the past is past. All the characters have done this except Gary, and the emotional arc of the film is about how this affects their relationships. There is inevitably a good deal of nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s, which is reflected in one of the most evocative and memorable soundtracks I can recall: Blur, the Stone Roses, the Soup Dragons, Suede, they are all here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story winds up hitting a few emotional notes you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a mainstream comedy film, but I found this just made the film more engaging. Certainly, I went to see The World’s End looking forward to the genre element of the story, but found myself enjoying the character-based comedy-drama much more. In addition to sharp and witty dialogue, there is also some well-executed slapstick and a brilliant gag about the plague of homogenous gastro-ification sweeping British pubs.

This is not to say that the other stuff is by any means bad, of course: it’s smartly written and immaculately assembled, with some superbly inventive action choreography along the way (even if the unarmed combat skills displayed by virtually every character seem a little implausible). But by the climax, one almost gets a sense of the film itself having had a couple of pints too many – things become just a touch out of control and silly, though not enough to spoil proceedings. (It’s definitely a stretch to claim the film is on some level an homage to Wyndham or Youd, as some publicity materials are claiming.) The conclusion, though fairly logical, seemed to me to be distinctly odd and tonally rather at odds with the way the rest of the film had been going.

Nevertheless, this is still a quality piece of work, as you would expect from the assembled talent involved in making it. Given the A-Team of actors involved, the only real surprise is Nick Frost’s continued ability to steal scenes apparently without effort. Doing that when you’re sharing the frame with Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman (often all at the same time) is a really remarkable talent. Frost might also want to consider branching out into action movies: he shows considerable potential in this department. Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan also pop up in key roles: there’s something weird about the fact that not much more than a decade ago it was perfectly okay for the two of them to get it on in a movie, but now he’s being cast as her former schoolteacher. Typically strange cinema attitudes to ageing, I suppose.

The World’s End is very much of a piece with the two other Wright/Pegg/Frost films in the way it combines comedy-drama with genre pastiche, but it isn’t afraid to try some new things – the roles played by the two leads are effectively reversed, while there’s less of a focus on their relationship and more of an ensemble feel to the film. For the most part, this works, and if this really does turn out to be the last time these three work together, they are concluding their relationship on a high. The World’s End is consistently very funny, frequently moving, and often rather exciting. A great piece of intelligent entertainment, and one of the best films of the summer so far.

Read Full Post »

So, to recap: didn’t like the 2009 Star Trek movie very much. Or, to put it another way, I enjoyed it most the first time I saw it, which was dubbed into Russian and lacking in subtitles. Looked nice, rattled along, but it didn’t really work on any level other than as an SF action spectacular, and I had serious issues with the way it opted to honour and ground itself in the rich heritage of Star Trek history by casually obliterating most of that history in one fell not-especially-coherent swoop. But, as usual, I was in the minority, the box office kerchinged to the tune of $385 million, and four years on here we are with the next offering from director JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.

stid

There’s not a lot of darkness initially on display as we find ourselves on a primary-hued planet where our heroes are engaging in a spot of surreptitious geological intervention. This segment is colourful and frantic but mainly seems to be here to permit the inclusion of an effects sequence where the Enterprise rises from the depths of an ocean (why on earth is it down there in the first place? Even Scotty complains that this is a ridiculous idea), although I suppose it also launches some of the character plotlines which run through the rest of the film.

Kirk (Chris Pine) saves the life of Spock (Zachary Quinto), rather against his will, mainly because by doing so he breaches the Prime Directive. Ructions ensue at Starfleet Command, but are curtailed by a terrorist attack on London. It turns out that the culprit is an enigmatic rogue Starfleet officer, named (it says here) John Harrison – he is played, quite as well as you might expect, by Cumbersome Bandersnatch from Sherlock. Not content with blowing up London and Noel Clarke, Harrison has a go at blowing up the top brass of Starfleet as well, then – before you can say nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa”e’ – transports himself off to the Klingon planet Qo’noS.

Thirsty for vengeance, even though some members of his own crew have deep reservations, Kirk accepts the mission of carrying out a retaliatory strike against Harrison. But can the young captain put his desire for revenge aside in the name of real justice? And is there more to their mysterious, almost-superhuman adversary than meets the eye?

If you liked the 2009 Star Trek movie, you’ll almost certainly like this one too, because it has all the same virtues: it looks sumptuous, the actors give it everything they’ve got, and the story barrels along energetically enough. There is even a bit of a topical moral quandary for the characters to wrestle with, which is a welcome improvement. I have to say, though, that I think the plot this time around is perhaps just a little too convoluted for its own good: much of it is powered by the interplay between two separate villains, and occasionally it’s not completely clear when they’re working in concert and when they’re actually in conflict with each other. I’m not going to flatly state that the plot doesn’t make sense: but I do think the film doesn’t quite work hard enough to show what the sense of it is.

On the whole the movie seems rather more interested in illustrating the main and fundamental difference between the new Star Trek universe and the one it replaced: specifically, that in nu-Trek people wear more hats. It’s true: we see Kirk and Spock turning up for various functions wearing peaked caps, while one of the new uniform designs unveiled here put me rather in mind of staff officers in the Imperial Navy of Emperor Palpatine. Even the Klingons wear hats in the new universe – well, helmets, anyway, though these do not completely obscure the fact that they have mysteriously got their cranial ridges back a few decades earlier than they did in the real universe.

For me it just added to the sense that this somehow isn’t real Star Trek – quite apart from the general aesthetic, there’s a subtle suggestion that the Federation still has a market-based economy, for one thing – and this is at its strongest when we consider the main characters of the film. Never mind that most of them don’t even look very much like their originals, they don’t behave or interact in a remotely similar fashion. Pine’s Kirk is an irresponsible wild man with none of the charm or charisma of William Shatner’s version, nu-Uhura’s importance has been boosted to the point where she’s arguably superceded McCoy as a lead character, and so on. Even the ones who are particularly well-played – and Simon Pegg makes the most of some good scenes as Scotty – aren’t recognisable as the same characters. Things get even more bizarre when it comes to the other characters who get their first nu-Trek outing in this film: not only do they behave totally differently, but their accents have changed and one is a completely different ethnicity.

Despite all this, the film stays quite watchable as long as it sticks to its own terms of reference. However, as the climax approaches… well, one of the predictions I made after seeing the 2009 movie was that this new iteration of the franchise would be condemned to endlessly revisit and reinterpret old characters and stories in order to justify its existence. And so it proves here, as Abrams and his writers have the sheer brass neck to revisit and reinterpret some of the Trek movie series’ finest and most memorable moments. They stuff it up; they honestly stuff it up very badly. True, there’s a physical confrontation at the end of the movie which is brilliantly staged and will caress the pleasure centres of any genuine Trekkie – but this didn’t make up for the moments which had me literally snorting with derision: it was like watching a home-movie remake of an Oscar winner.

Still, I expect this movie will do at least as well as the last one, and further instalments will doubtless follow. But I suspect these will do no more than attempt to recycle past glories in same manner as Star Trek Into Darkness. The starship Enterprise is travelling in circles: attractive circles, energetic circles, well-crafted circles, yes, but still circles. At the moment this is a franchise which is boldly going nowhere new.

Read Full Post »

When is a universe a star? The question is surely relevant to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 redo of the mighty Star Trek phenomenon, a look at which I’ve been promising myself for ages now. The present time seems as auspicious as any, with the sequel due upon us in a matter of days, and Abrams recently anointed (possibly from a poisoned chalice, if that isn’t stretching a metaphor too far) as the director of the first Disney Star Wars movie.

newtrek

The circumstances in which I first saw the 2009 Star Trek have a bearing on my attitude to it. I saw it at a picturehouse in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, at what felt like a frankly unreasonably early hour on a Sunday morning (I believe I had been at a nightclub the previous evening). I was accompanied by my then-wife, which was fortunate as the movie was, as usual, in Russian, and my grasp of the language didn’t extend much beyond counting fruit, so as a native speaker she could at least explain the finer points of the plot (or so I hoped).

Anyway, we sat down to watch it and – with the odd reservation – I was rather impressed by what I saw. I could not, in all honesty, follow all the convolutions of the story, but obviously I have since caught up. It opens with a starship investigating an anomalous phenomenon in space, only to be confronted by an enormous vessel of Romulan origin – but Romulus in the future. The captain (Eric Bana) is intent on locating the famed Ambassador Spock, with whom he clearly has a bone to pick, and doesn’t care who he blows up in order to get to him.

Well, the first officer of the Federation ship has to sacrifice his own life in order to secure the escape of the rest of the surviving crew, which would probably have come as a shock to long-time Trekkies as he is revealed to be Captain Kirk’s dad, who never previously died that way. The time-travelling Romulans have, in short, changed the history of both Kirk and the Federation.

This acts as a marvellous get-out for scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, allowing them to jiggle about the established history of all the classic Star Trek characters without being accused of riding roughshod over continuity (well… we’ll come back to that). So we meet a slightly different Kirk, who’s more of a bad-boy maverick with a chequered past, and follow his enlistment into Starfleet, his first encounters with Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and the rest, and the eventual showdown with those vengeful Romulans. The original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) pops up briefly too, as if to give some sort of official imprimatur to the whole undertaking.

Well, in Russian, I thought it looked rather marvellous – Abrams has come up with a new and convincing aesthetic for the Star Trek universe (even if the engineering deck of the Enterprise now looks like a brewery, for no apparent reason), and – provided you can see past the lens flare – it’s a beautiful-looking movie. However, I have to say that every time since that I have watched this film, I’ve liked it a little bit less than before.

This is not to say that I think this is an outright badly-made film, because it obviously isn’t – I will happily have it on the background while I’m doing something else, because the story is sort-of coherent and interesting, it looks good, and there are some well-executed sequences along the way. It’s a pretty good SF action blockbuster. I just don’t think it does Star Trek any favours: in fact, I would say it’s the biggest retrograde step in the history of the franchise.

Now, as regular readers will know, my hearts may belong to Doctor Who, but Star Trek – certainly selected bits of it – can have one of my lungs without my complaining in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve missed more than two or three episodes of any of the series, although to be honest by the time Voyager and Enterprise came along it was more out of a sense of obligation than any sense that this was vibrant, innovative and exciting SF.

Why do I like Star Trek? Two main reasons, I think – firstly, in its better incarnations, Trek has never been afraid to tackle some fairly challenging ethical and philosophical issues – I’ve heard it argued that all true SF is an extended attempt to define what it means to be human, and this is certainly true of the best of Trek. The latter series may have dropped the ball somewhat in terms of breaking new ground in this area, but that shouldn’t detract from the achievements of the earlier shows.

Secondly – and I admit this is much more geeky – I like the Star Trek universe very much. All right, so it isn’t the most subtly-developed fictional universe in history, bits of it are quite repetitive and in some ways it can be outright absurd, but it’s mostly coherent, and it looks like it would be a nice place to visit (neither of which you could strictly say about the Doctor Who universe). For me, one of the great attractions of Star Trek prior to 2009 was that, in a sense, the ongoing star of all of the series and movies was the universe itself.

What the 2009 movie seems to represent, though, is an announcement that Star Trek is not fundamentally about its own universe any more. It now fundamentally seems to be about one particular set of well-known characters – Kirk, Spock, et al – with everything else being up for grabs as suits the requirements of the story.

Hence the structure and central conceit of this movie. It would surely have been much simpler to just reboot the franchise from scratch with the classic Enterprise crew coming together for the first time, but this would inevitably have meant clashes with established continuity and a negative reaction from the established fanbase, whom Paramount clearly want on-board with the new series. So we get the rather laborious device of villains from the ‘established’ universe travelling back to create a new timeline where Abrams and company can do what they want: what they want, so far as I can tell, is to have their cake and eat it, seeing as their objective appears to be to establish an unbreakable connection to the old continuity without their being bound by it in the slightest.

It seems strange to show your respect for an established continuity by largely obliterating it, but this is what the movie essentially does. A hand-wave is slipped in explaining that the actions of Bana’s character have created an ‘alternative timeline’, but this is not how temporal mechanics works in the Trek universe and the writers should be aware of that. If you travel back in time and start changing things in Star Trek, you don’t create a new parallel timeline, you replace the original one – this idea is central to the plots of several of the best pieces of Trek, such as City at the Edge of Forever and the movie First Contact. Basically, the 2009 movie, as a direct result of trying to keep long-term fans on board, takes the vast majority of existing Star Trek and throws it in the bin, storywise. You would think this would be rather counter-productive, but the feedback I’ve seen from Trek fandom has been mostly positive, which genuinely surprises me.

The movie’s preoccupation with jiggling its own continuity about means there’s not much room in the plot for anything else. Well, there’s a narrative thread for Spock, and another one for Kirk – both examples of our old friend the character-driven story – but the film completely shies away from any deeper questions. As I said, this is a good-looking SF action movie with a peculiarly convoluted backstory, but nothing more demanding or challenging than that.

It’s not impossible to reinvent a plot-driven series as a character-driven one – sorry, it would feel contrived if I didn’t mention Doctor Who at this point – but to do so at the same time you completely reboot the continuity begs the question of just what, if anything, is left of the original when you’re finished. And in my experience, whenever anyone attempts this kind of alt-timeline reboot of an existing set of characters, the post-reboot need to show that this really is still the same series results in endless new takes on old stories and situations, rather than anything genuinely original.

And so it seems to be the case with the ‘new’ Star Trek: the comic series based on the new movie largely consists of rejigglings of episodes from the original TV series, while in the forthcoming movie the big question everyone seems to be asking is who Benedict Cumberbatch’s character will turn out to be – Khan or Gary Mitchell? There’s a thin line between paying respect to continuity, and being smothered by it. Never mind that the new version of Star Trek seems to have kept many of the minor details of the original but none of the spirit – what’s more important is that it doesn’t seem to have anywhere new to go as a result. I’ll be going to see the new movie, of course, but my long-term prognosis for the franchise is not a very positive one: to me it looks very much like what’s left of Star Trek will eat itself.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »