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Posts Tagged ‘Toni Collette’

Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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Never let it be said that this blog is unafraid to tackle the heavyweight questions of the day: for instance, is Orlando Bloom really an actor? Now, wait just a cotton-picking minute there if you think I am in any way casting aspersions on Landy’s abilities when it comes to the thespian department. No, the reason for my question is the simple fact that, for a major global celebrity, our man Bloom doesn’t really seem to turn up in many movies these days. I mean, there was his (I am tempted to say thankfully) brief cameo in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but outside of his appearances in the Hobbit movies I can’t think of much I’ve seen him in in the last ten years or so.

Well, I believe the answer may partly lie in the fact that, in addition to his other activities, Landy has taken up being a film producer (why do I suddenly suspect that becoming a film producer is not as difficult as I always thought?). As any fule kno, being a film producer involves lots of meetings and calls and discussions about movies which most of the time end up not being made at all, despite hefty development fees changing hands. So you might say that Landy has hit upon a wheeze where people are paying him not to make movies (I wish he had come up with that idea about fifteen years ago).

The flaw in this arrangement, unfortunately, is that one of Landy’s films occasionally slips through the net and ends up going into production, but I guess that’s a possibility we have to live with. Even then, it does look like not all of these films actually make it into cinemas, as in the case of Michael Apted’s movie from this year, Unlocked. If this film got more than the most limited UK cinema release, I didn’t notice it at the time, and was totally unaware of its existence until someone gave me it on DVD (presumably on the grounds that they think I don’t watch nearly enough movies these days).

Unlocked is a not especially sexy title for what aspires to be a taut and exciting contemporary thriller. Indeed, it’s not really a particularly pertinent title, given what goes on in the plot, but on the other hand it is amongst the least of this movie’s problems.

Noomi Rapace brings clinical intensity, memorable cheekbones, and a suspiciously Swedish accent to the role of Alice Racine, a CIA agent who has spent the last couple of years working undercover as a Citizen’s Advice bod at a London community centre. Pyoiiinnggg! (That would be the sound of my disbelief being stretched beyond its natural limits, and we’re only in the first line of the plot synopsis. Let’s press on.) Alice used to be a top CIA interrogator but after a traumatic incident she has taken a step back, hence the community centre gig.

However, when another top CIA interrogator unexpectedly carks it in London just before beginning a vital job, Alice finds herself dragged out of semi-retirement. An Islamic terrorist has laid his hands on one of those them-there doomsday viruses, and is awaiting instructions on what to do with it. The CIA have nabbed the courier due to give him said instructions, and want him breaking down so they can send the terrorist false information and stop the virus being disseminated. How much more straightforward can things get?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out, as events prove the CIA has been compromised, and when the courier and a bunch of other agents end up getting killed, Alice is the chief person of interest. Inevitably she ends up going on the run from her own superiors, in search of the traitors, with her main ally being Jack, an ex-marine turned burglar who she caught breaking into her flat. Could it look any bleaker? Well, Jack is played by Landy himself.

Yup, that’s Landy Bloom as a lovably roguish ex-marine hard man. Pyoiiinnggg! (Sorry – it might be a good idea to wear protective goggles, or something.) To be honest, the main thing to be said about Landy’s contribution to Unlocked is how superfluous it feels – you almost get the sense that the script came across Landy’s desk, and he liked it so much he not only decided to make it, but also insisted it was rewritten so he could be in it (shades of that story about the millionaire buying the American football team and then insisting on playing quarterback). He comes into it quite a long way in. He doesn’t do a great deal while he’s there. And then, well before the climax, he vanishes out of the film in very peculiar circumstances indeed, with the fate of his character obscure, to say the least. Still, his face is nice and big on the DVD cover, anyway.

(Hmm – my usual slapdash research suggests Landy didn’t actually produce this film, despite the fact that one of the production entities is named ‘Bloom’. Curiouser and curiouser. Well, sort of.)

Landy’s contribution aside, Unlocked is basically a fairly typical modern thriller, very morally neutral and crissy-crossy, wanting to be one of the Bourne movies so badly it probably physically hurts – in a couple of places the music is so obviously ripped-off from that franchise that I’m surprised writs didn’t change hands. In addition to aping the style of a major blockbuster, it also looks like the movie has managed to land a major blockbuster cast – quite apart from Rapace and Landy, it features Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich.

Nevertheless, this is really quite a dull movie – it’s competently written and assembled, I suppose, and when Rapace is actually doing her interrogating there are some interesting nuggets of tradecraft in the script. But once it all gets going and she has to go on the run, well, it all becomes at best predictable and at worst rather preposterous. There’s a major plot twist, for instance, that I spotted the instant it was introduced. And the motivation of the bad guy, when it’s revealed, is really and truly absurd – he’s orchestrating a major biochemical weapons attack on US citizens basically as a way of whistle-blowing the dangers of viral terrorism. I would suggest a strongly-worded memo might be a somewhat saner method of achieving the same results.

As I say, most of the performances and so on are fine (although Noomi Rapace is perhaps a bit too much of a Proper Serious Actress to be entirely comfortable in the role of ass-kicking babe, which is basically what’s required of her here), but I strongly suspect that in a couple of days’ time I will have forgotten almost everything about the plot of the movie. It’s not actively bad, most of the time, but it doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself from the dozens of other recent movies made with a similar style and ethos. If you haven’t seen another thriller this century, then Unlocked may prove to be a pleasant surprise, but even then, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

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Well, what a year it’s been so far at the cinema, and it’s still only the third week of January – A Monster Calls, Silence, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea all went on release in the space of a relatively few days, any of which individually would have been a great harbinger for the year to come. Collectively, it’s looking like an anno mirabilis, twelve months in which every movie proves to be a rewarding, sophisticated, intelligent work of art. But how long can this kind of quality continue?

xxx

Who knows, but let’s take a moment to look at D. J. Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, starring the great Vin Diesel. Now, you know me, I like Vin Diesel, broadly speaking, and will give anything he does a fair hearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that Vin has a dark secret known to only a select few with access to an obscure website known as ‘Wikipedia’.

Once upon a time there was a sincere young artist called Mark Sinclair. Mark was a screenwriter, director and actor who spent his time working on heartfelt, serious films about what it was like to be of ambiguous ethnicity in the modern USA, breakdancing, and playing a lot of purist Dungeons & Dragons. And then something happened. Just as the virtuous and heroic Anakin Skywalker was consumed and obliterated by the dark animus of Darth Vader, so no-one ever seems to hear from Mark Sinclair any more, but we do get regular offerings from Mark’s alter ego Vin Diesel, who seems unlikely to make a heartfelt, serious film about anything, but seems very comfortable playing a tree in various Marvel Comics movies.

So it is with the utterly mind-boggling xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Now, for anyone not following along (wise souls), the xXx series was launched in 2002 as a tough-guy vehicle for Vin Diesel, then riding high after the first Fast and Furious movie, but – somewhat bizarrely – continued in his absence when he dropped out of 2005’s xXx: State of the Union to make the eminently forgettable comedy The Pacifier. Roll on over ten years and we still find Diesel there or thereabouts when it comes to movie stardom, but still one of those people whose ability to open a movie is severely limited: people will go to see him in droves for Fast and Furious sequels, and to a lesser extent in films about his Riddick character, but anything else with him on-screen struggles to get a wide release (here in the UK anyway). One might even suggest that this very belated return to the xXx series puts one in mind of a dog returning to his own… you know what, let’s not even complete that image, as things are going to get unsavoury enough, I suspect.

The first scene sets the tone quite well, as Samuel L Jackson (barely appearing) delivers a bafflegab lecture about the need for the xXx programme, wherein people with minimal actual skills but bags of kewl attitude are recruited to save the world. The gag is that he is talking to Neymar Junior, who I understand is a football player, and the lad almost at once gets to show his potential by using his ace keepy-uppy skills to subdue an armed robber. No, honestly.

Well, anyway. The CIA have got their hands on a evil Maguffin widget capable of blowing lots of things up, and no-nonsense CIA dominatrix Toni Collette (really slumming it) is not best pleased when a bunch of scallywags led by Donnie Yen break into the building, cause all kinds of mayhem, and run off with it to their top-secret lair, which is a beach resort in the Philippines.

The CIA decide to disregard the fact that former top agent Xander Cage (Mark Sincl – sorry, Vin Diesel) died in the previous sequel and ask him to come back and get the evil widget out of Donnie Yen’s hands. Naturally he says yes, or this would be a very short film. Up to this point proceedings have been rather vacuous, but once Vin gets going… well, calling this film empty-headed would be a profound insult to Barbie dolls everywhere.

See Vin ski through the jungle. See Vin skateboard down a road against the flow of traffic. See Vin get his end away with someone half his age. See the CIA try to recruit Vin. See him scorn and mock them but agree to help out anyway. See Vin lech at more young women. See him track down the incredibly hard-to-find bad guys in about eight seconds flat. See him get his end away again. See the CIA assign Vin a backup squad of uptight soldiers who sneer at his rebel ways. See Vin throw them all out the back of a plane in flight. See Vin juggle grenades at a beach party. See Vin flirt laboriously with imported Bollywood star Deepika Padukone. See Vin ride a motorcycle, underwater. And so on (this is just the first act of the movie, more or less).

I mean, I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It is admittedly never completely dull, although this is in the same sense that it’s not dull being inside an oil drum being repeatedly struck by baseball bats, and there are at least a couple of sequences in which we get to see Donnie Yen in full flow, which is always a cherishable experience (Tony Jaa, who also features, is much less well-served), and there is at least one laugh-out-loud in-joke about this series’ somewhat peculiar production history.

If I were a young person I think I would feel profoundly insulted by this movie, as it seems to operate according to the belief that all young people are congenital morons capable only of involvement on the most superficial of levels – that, or the film is intended to be enjoyed with the dreaded ironic sensibility (but I really doubt this as it would require a subtlety utterly lacking in all other departments of the movie). Vin dismisses the trained soldiers originally assigned to back him up, instead plumping for a tattooed lesbian sharpshooter (I suppose she does have some utility for the mission), an unhinged stunt driver whose hobby is crashing into things, and a kid whose main talent is that he is a really good DJ. I mean, what? What? Being young and edgy can only take you so far in life.

Nor does it last, of course: and perhaps it might be worthwhile for someone to have a quiet word in Vin Diesel’s shell-like, to the effect that having extensive inks and wearing cargo pants all the time only go so far in disguising the fact that you are a grown man pushing fifty but still really acting like a teenager. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a grown man who appears to be having a mid-life crisis of some kind. One scene has Vin, who has chosen to turn up in an extraordinary fur coat which even a mid-1970s football manager would quail at wearing, being descended upon by half-a-dozen young lingerie models – the next we see, they are all in a happy, stupefied heap, with our hero standing nearby looking as smug as only a highly-paid actor-producer can.

And it just radiates a kind of lazy contempt for its target audience – these kids are stupid! Just stick in a load of overblown stunt sequences and hot young women in swimsuits and they won’t care if the plot is just an absurd assembly of set pieces! Let’s keep on about what a rebel Vin’s character is even though he hardly ever does anything especially rebellious that isn’t also ridiculously stupid! Let’s keep on with those cool and edgy credentials – anyone in a suit is the Man and evil (except for Sam Jackson, he’s cool) and anyone into extreme sports is great!

I still like Vin Diesel a lot. I’m looking forward to Fast and Furious 8 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 very much. But this is like the dark, twisted, idiot brother of a Fast and Furious film: sexist, soulless, and calculating in a particularly thick-headed way. I like an absurd action movie as much as the next person (probably), but this film works much too hard at being actively stupid. Return of Xander Cage sets the bar for this year’s crop of thicko movies impressively low. I wouldn’t be surprised if xXx turned out to be the xXXxiest film of 2017.

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