Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Vincent Cassel’

What do you get when you put an IT expert, a rocket scientist, an electrical engineer and an unemployed God-only-knows-what into a darkened room together? Either experimental theatre, or – as was indeed the case on the particular occasion I am thinking of – a night out to the cinema for my gaming group. This, I should make clear, is a fairly unusual occurrence: when we get together, it’s usually to play games, as the fact we are a gaming group might lead one to suspect. Our only previous outings of this nature were to see the two most recent stellar conflict movies, and this was simply because it is our shared love of the stellar conflict franchise (and associated entertainments) that originally brought us together. Needless to say, there was a similar rationale behind our decision to go and see William Eubank’s Underwater.

That said, I knew literally nothing about this movie beyond the title and the fact that it contained one particular story element, and was half-expecting something very low-budget and rough around the edges. It was therefore a fairly pleasant surprise when the opening credits indicated that leading the film would be Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, for these are both classy performers, and Stewart, in particular, has acquired that talent of always being impressively watchable even when the film she’s appearing in is not really up to much.

Underwater is very much part of Stewart’s return to mainstream entertainment. She (still with basically the same haircut as in Seberg) plays Norah Price, an engineer working at a deep-sea drilling installation at some time in the fairly near future. Pretty much the first thing that happens in the movie is that the station suffers a catastrophic breach, killing most of the crew. Stewart survives, obviously, and together with a couple of fellow survivors she makes her way to the command deck where she encounters the captain of the project (Cassel) and a few others. Something has gone horribly wrong – but what, exactly? It’s not at all clear. In any case, survival must come first and Cassel has a plan: all the escape pods in the station itself have gone, but if they descend through the wreckage of the rig to the ocean bed and then trek across it to what’s left of the drillhead, they may yet find the means to return to the surface alive.

This, naturally, involves clumping around in damaged deep-sea suits under pressures that would almost instantly reduce any normal person to mulch (and, this being a horror movie, that indeed happens to someone). But it gets better, by which I mean worse. Hostile and grotesque new forms of marine life have apparently been stirred up and are infesting the area around the station and the drill site. What exactly has the drilling project woken up…?

The first thing one should say about Underwater (not the most imaginative title, but accurate) is that it is a solid genre movie that understands and respects the conventions of the kind of film it clearly is, which is to say it is a horror-SF film. (By this I mean that you can guess more-or-less in which order the cast are going to get killed, you see progressively more of the monsters as the thing goes on, and there are various sequences in which Stewart and the other female cast member, Jessica Henwick, run around in their underwear.) However, this itself almost constitutes a surprise given William Eubank’s CV: he also made (though I had forgotten this) The Signal, an impressive piece of slightly experimental pure SF, stronger on visuals than strict narrative coherence. This film boasts the same kind of solid production values and impressive special effects, but it’s the kind of movie which you can’t imagine had its origins in anything other than the director watching a film they really enjoyed as a teenager and really wanting to do their own version of it.

Even the brief capsule synopsis I have provided is possibly quite indicative of just how derivative Underwater feels: the grimy, industrial aesthetic and some elements of creature design instantly recall Alien; there’s a sequence strongly reminiscent of Gravity; you can point out elements which have been pinched from everything from The Abyss to the 2014 Godzilla to DeepStar Six. New ground is not really being broken here.

Now, obviously I am not suggesting that derivative films are necessarily bad ones; you could possibly argue that genre movies are by definition to some extent derivative. Underwater indicates from the start what kind of film it’s going to be and then proceeds to be that film. It’s a solid, meat and potatoes piece of work: I can easily imagine it making regular appearances in the 9pm slot on the Horror Channel a few years from now, but possibly the only thing it will really be remembered for is the fact it was the very last film put out under the 20th Century Fox marque before Disney renamed the studio (sic transit gloria Mickey).

Well… that said, there is of course still the question of just why this film lured four veteran role-playing gamers out to the late night showing which is the only one this film managed to secure. Here I am a little reluctant to go into much detail, although talking about ‘spoilers’ in this instance may well be pushing it: I’m not so much talking about plot points as a kind of massive in-joke or Easter egg. You’ll either get it or you won’t; my understanding is that it wasn’t in the original script and even the film’s producers weren’t really informed about it. Oh, well: word of the ‘twist’ in Underwater has spread like wildfire through certain sections of the internet so I expect most people who would be interested will already know. Nevertheless, ‘spoilers’ will follow the poster.

This is a horror movie; we are currently playing the world’s best-known and best-loved horror role-playing game, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft (there is perhaps something slightly ironic about the fact that Kristen Stewart’s famous ex is also appearing in a distinctly Lovecraftian horror movie at the moment). Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work will have a very good idea of just why it is a very bad idea to go poking around in the deepest, darkest parts of the Pacific Ocean, and just what it is you are likely to disturb. If you know your HPL you will now have a very good idea of who or what turns up in the third act of Underwater, and I have to say the realisation is pretty good (although everyone probably has their own idea of exactly what Lovecraft’s Dreamer actually looks like). Seeing ol’ squidhead on the big screen is certainly a memorable moment, but on the other hand it isn’t much more than the in-joke or Easter egg I mentioned earlier. I’m a bit of a purist about Lovecraftian horror (couldn’t you guess) and I wouldn’t really call this a Lovecraftian movie per se: the decision to include one of Lovecraft’s monsters was made during post-production, so it’s not like it’s strongly present in the script. Still, maybe if this film does good business, coupled to the decent notices received by Richard Stanley’s adaptation of the Lovecraft story Color Out of Space, there may be more interest in doing this kind of thing properly – maybe even Guillermo del Toro’s long-mooted crack at At the Mountains of Madness. A man can dream (of weird, cyclopean architecture, with hideous, non-Euclidean angles, probably). As it is, this is a decent SF-horror film with a fun and quite cool treat for the initiated.

Read Full Post »

So, DC are releasing an antihero-themed wannabe-blockbuster and there’s a new Bourne sequel with Matt Damon in the cinema too: cripes, it’s like I’m back in August 2004 all over again. (I wonder if it’s possible to leave myself a note not to bother going to see Transformers? Somehow I doubt it.) I suppose this is a timely reminder that some things never really change.

bourne5

I suppose the key thing this time around is that Jason Bourne is the first film about that character in nine years, Damon, director Paul Greengrass, and Bourne himself all having excused themselves from participating in Tony Gilroy’s rather disappointing crack at a Bourne-free Bourne movie, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. As I always seem to be saying, it took me a while to warm up to this series, and my review of the original 2002 movie is virtually the textbook case of my getting it very wrong indeed, but the prospect of a new outing from this team was always going to be a very enticing one.

Many years have passed since Bourne’s disappearance (the film appears to be set in 2015, but there is a degree of elastic movie time going on here – Bourne’s birth year is given as 1978, which is somewhat flattering to the 45-year-old Matt Damon, but it also seems to suggest that Bourne was going around topping folk in his early twenties, which somehow feels rather implausible) and a new generation of iffy projects is being cultivated by the top brass at the CIA. Determined to stop this, the CIA computers are hacked by Bourne’s old associate/handler Nicky (Julia Stiles) who downloads key files on his recruitment. The two of them hook up in riot-torn Athens, with the stolen files perhaps offering Bourne a way to reconnect with the world and find a reason for living beyond simply beating people up. But the CIA is determined to protect its secrets and mobilises its full array of resources against them…

Well, if you liked the previous Damon/Greengrass Bourne films you’re probably going to like this one, too. There is a sense in which it perhaps feels a bit formulaic in terms of the way the plot develops, but not to the point where it seriously impairs the film as a piece of serious entertainment. After the resounding phrrppp of the Jeremy Renner movie, it’s actually quite reassuring and cosy to find a film which hits so many of the familiar series beats: beady-eyed CIA analysts poised over computers, ‘Bring the Asset on-line,’ internet cafes, Matt Damon stalking purposefully out of airports and railway stations, ‘Eyes on target’, some wistful cor anglais during the character beats, a spectacularly destructive final chase sequence, Bourne displaying the kind of ability to soak up punishment normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or possibly Popeye the Sailor, Extreme Ways playing over the closing credits and so on. It doesn’t even matter that much that most of the characters are basically stock figures by this point – there is the grizzled CIA veteran (Tommy Lee Jones this time), the ambitious young operator (Alicia Vikander this time), and the fearsomely professional rival assassin whom Bourne is clearly going to have to engage in a deadly contest of skills at some point (Vincent Cassel this time).

I would happily turn up to any film featuring all these things, but the thing about the Bourne films was that they always had a bit more about them than the average action thriller, and the question is whether the new film has any reason to exist other than to profitably rehash elements of a well-regarded film franchise. Well, the jury is still thinking about that one, I suspect, for the plot of the film feels ever so slightly slapped together: the first two thirds are primarily about Bourne’s own past and his father’s hitherto-unsuspected role in the creation of the Treadstone Project, which feels more or less natural and justified – but for the final act and the climax they segue into an essentially unconnected plotline about internet privacy and the CIA infiltrating social network providers. This is the kind of hot-button topic that Paul Greengrass is clearly strongly drawn to, but it is a bit of a wrench given what precedes it, to say nothing of the fact that this kind of malevolent ubiquitous cyber-surveillance was the underwhelming Maguffin at the heart of SPECTRE, too.

I mean, this is still a superbly accomplished thriller, and miles better than the Renner movie, even if the major set pieces aren’t quite as stupendous as the ones in the previous films. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like it has the heart and soul of those films – it’s kind of searching for a reason to exist, which I suppose is Bourne’s own quest, but even so. As I said, it all feels just a little bit like a remix of the Bourne series’ greatest hits, something rather formulaic. Luckily, it’s a brilliant formula, and the result is a very satisfying piece of entertainment. The problem is that it’s inevitably going to draw comparisons with two of the very best thrillers of the last 15 years, and it simply isn’t quite up to the same standard. It says something about the older movies when the fact that this one is only a very good thriller qualifies as a disappointment.

Read Full Post »

If you were the producer of a lavish, Anglophone fantasy movie, featuring stars from noted American franchises, and released in that period of early-to-mid-summer when some of the biggest hits of the year are traditionally forged, you would usually be a little bit irked if your project ended up relegated to the wilderlands of art-house showings. But if the film in question is Tale of Tales and you are its director, Matteo Garrone, it may be a different matter, for something about this film tells me it is the product of a sensibility for which mass populism is not the over-riding concern.

Tale-of-Tales-UK-quad-600x450

I suppose there is a sense in which this is not really a fantasy but a fairy tale (the differences between the two: discuss), although there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – recent evidence indicates that over 51% of British voters are suckers for fairy tales, provided they are pitched just right and repeated frequently enough. On the other hand, fairy tales are traditionally associated with quite young people, while Tale of Tales is packed with enough gore, nudity, and associated naughtiness to make it very questionable entertainment for all but the broadest-minded of families. (Slightly ironic, given that the collection of folk tales which inspired the movie was also a primary source when the Brothers Grimm were assembling their own fairy tales.)

This is one of them there anthology films, recounting a trilogy of off-beat narratives, very loosely linked at the beginning and end. The first concerns the dangerously broody Queen of Darkwood (Salma Hayek), who is prepared to take advice from very suspect sources in order to actually have a child. As a result her devoted husband the King (John C Reilly, briefly appearing) is prepared to put on a deep-sea diving suit and engage in mortal combat with a sea-monster, as the Queen has been told that only by eating the heart of such a beast can she actually bear a child.

Well, the beast is slain and the Queen has her baby – but in an unforeseen wrinkle, the woman who cooks the heart also has a child, and as the two boys grow up they prove to be identical to one another, with an unnatural affinity for water and a very close bond. As one of them is a peasant and the other the heir presumptive, this is very much not to the Queen’s liking… but with her beloved son and his hated friend being quite so identical, is there anything she can safely do about it?

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring kingdom of Stronghold, the highly-sexed king (Vincent Cassell) falls in love with a mysterious woman based solely on the beauty of her singing voice, little realising that the shy Dora (Hayley Carmichael) is actually a wrinkly old crone in her seventies or eighties who lives with her equally wrinkly old sister (Shirley Henderson). The king remains insistent, Dora is – on reflection – wildly over-optimistic, and something very farcical seems to be on the cards.

The final story concerns the foolish king of Highmountain (Toby Jones), who becomes fascinated by his pet flea, which he indulges until it reaches a quite extraordinary size, in the process neglecting his sweet and high-spirited daughter (Bebe Cave). What follows is more like a parody of a fairy tale than anything else, involving an ogre, brave gypsies, impossible quests, and much more along the same lines.

Something else that links the three stories is the fact that none of them exactly come to a happy ending. The story of the twin boys is pretty dark all the way through, the tale of the crone sisters initially seems like a bawdy romp, and that of the king and his flea is just absurd, but they all conclude with gory unpleasantness and, more often than not, violent death. There’s a sense in which this is probably quite true-to-source – the ending of the original version of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, is quite horrible – but it does make for rather a downer ending for what started off as a drolly whimsical film.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say the closest thing to Tale of Tales that I’ve seen would be a Terry Gilliam film – maybe either Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, though this isn’t quite as anarchic as the former or as scatological as the latter. It has the same almost-palpable sense of earthy history to it, some of the same visual flair, the same understated comedy and fine performances – though, to be fair, most of it is played deadpan-straight. (Some good monsters, too.)

I suppose I should also mention that the tale of the old crones, which prominently features attractive naked young women and concludes on a moment of proper grand guignol, also put me rather in mind of a late period Hammer Horror, albeit one made on a very big budget. This story probably benefits from obviously being about something (our obsession with youth and beauty), while the other two storylines just meander about amiably.

All Tale of Tales‘ quality and visual lavishness – this is a beautiful, beautiful film, as exquisitely designed and photographed as any I’ve seen this year – is really a bit undermined by the fact that, as an anthology movie, its pacing is inevitably a bit disjointed – a great movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end, after all, not a beginning, a beginning, and a beginning, then a middle, a middle, and a middle, and so on.

I suppose this is the really odd and frustrating thing about Tale of Tales, in the end: this is a film about stories – the title kind of gives it away – and formidable talent has clearly been brought to bear in every department of the film… except that of the script itself. This is by no means bad, and the film remains engagingly odd throughout, but you never really lose yourself in any of the stories – it’s all just a bit too calculatedly arty or arch for the stories to work their own magic, and the fact that none of them have what you could really call a satisfying climax is a bit of an issue too.

As I said, this is a fabulous-looking movie and it does have a more authentic sense of the genuinely weird about it than any of the Hollywood fantasy films I’ve seen this year – more of a sense of humour, too. But in the end I can’t shake the impression that this is intended to be more enjoyed as a work of art than as an actual exercise in storytelling. Still, worth seeing if you like this sort of thing.

Read Full Post »

As readers of the collected reviews will probably have surmised, I am late to the party when it comes to feting Danny Boyle as a film-maker – I can’t remember seeing a film of his that I actually thought was bad, per se, but certainly many of the early ones just strike me as a little bit too smug and glossy. Having said that, I love 28 Days Later, thought Slumdog Millionaire was terrific, and had a lot of time for 127 Hours as well. So I suppose I’ve come around to the view that – certainly of late – Boyle has become a genuine national treasure as a director of real class.

Trance-Poster

This is a consensus unlikely to be much damaged by his new film, Trance, unless I miss my guess very badly. In retrospect, this looks and feels very much like a Boyle film from beginning to end, and the story itself contains a few old friends from past projects – violent gangs as antagonists, scene-setting voice-overs, a few other tropes, whistles and bells with the narrative voice – and yet it still manages the neat trick of feeling completely fresh and surprising, thanks to a ferociously clever and convoluted story originated by the less generally well-known writer-director Joe Ahearne (who earned the respect of some of us for his work in Ancient Times on This Life and Ultraviolet). All in all this is a very smart and attractive package.

The film opens by introducing us to junior auctioneer Simon Newton (James McAvoy), who cheerfully explains to us the package of measures in place to stop people nicking expensive paintings when they come up for sale. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the depiction of a well-organised attempt to circumvent these precautions when a famous Goya picture is sold for £25 million. Simon is briefly in charge of taking the threatened picture to safety, but is cornered by lead thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) who relieves him of it and gives him a nasty crack on the head for his trouble. However, when Franck pauses to admire his ill-gotten gains, the picture seems to have vanished into thin air…

When Simon gets out of hospital, he is less than pleased to find his flat and car have both been ransacked, and even less delighted when Franck’s henchmen whisk him off to a secluded location for a fairly intense chat. Simon, it transpires, was in on the robbery from the start, but the disappearing picture was not part of the plan. If he wishes to retain all his body parts in working order, Franck suggests he hands it over right away. But of course, there is a problem – Simon’s bang on the head seems to have left him with amnesia concerning exactly what happened in the aftermath of the robbery, and he’s no clue what happened to the painting. Trimming down the ends of Simon’s fingers does not improve his memory and so the gang resort to different approach – Simon is packed off to a comely hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), with instructions to get his memory restored so everyone can go their separate ways with smiles on their faces . However, Franck and Simon have reckoned without the therapist, who brings a new and unexpected agenda of her own to this already tangled situation.

Trance kicks off like a slick and glossy caper thriller somewhat in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven – the opening sequence, detailing the robbery itself, is brilliantly put together and hugely enjoyable. But as well as showcasing Boyle’s mastery of the medium, this part of the film is surely there to settle the audience, engage them with the film, and – perhaps most importantly – win their trust. This is because there is a moment, not very far into the film, where I sat back and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea which way this story was going to go next. It’s hellishly difficult to fly off the beacon like this and take the audience with you, but Boyle manages it almost effortlessly.

Almost imperceptibly the focus of the film shifts from the problem of finding the missing painting, and it becomes a much darker, more twisted thriller about the relationship between the three lead characters. Not everything is as it has first been presented to us, and the story becomes a matter of digging down through complex layers of deception and confusion to reach the truth. As they do so, the roles of mastermind, manipulatee, and victim shuffle back and forth between the trio: it’s a hell of a conjuring trick, and almost flawlessly executed (I can only think of one possible moment where the film appears to be cheating, and I’d have to see it again to be sure). But you have to keep your wits about you and pay attention if you want to keep up – this is a supremely confident film and not one that make compromises for the sake of the audience.

This extends to some of the elements of violence and gore which punctuate the film – in terms of these alone, Trance must be at the absolute top end of the 15 certificate, and this is before we even get to the sex and nudity. This is the only part of the film about which I have some misgivings, because its sexual politics seem to me to be a little skewed. You could certainly argue that this is, on some level, a story about feminine empowerment, but this does not sit especially easily with a couple of sequences requiring some remarkably graphic nudity from the leading lady (especially considering that nothing really comparable is expected of the two men). These scenes felt to me to have a nasty, leering quality quite at odds with the rest of the film, and while they illustrate both character and plot points, the points in question are hardly essential to the story.

This stuff certainly brings a vaguely ugly quality to a film which otherwise seems intended to be as attractive and bright as possible, even at the expense of some credibility – Trance shows London as a glossy, beautiful playground, where everyone has a giant-sized wall TV, state-of-the-art fitted kitchen, and private pool, and people can routinely afford to send each other iPads in the post rather than one of your actual letters. It is slightly absurd, but at the same time very appealing – and much the same could be said of the convolutions of the plot. Danny Boyle orchestrates the whole thing with seemingly effortless skill, helped by very solid performances from the three stars, all of whom make the most of the ambiguities inherent in the script. Not a film for kids, nor one to be taken too seriously – but as a piece of hugely stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, Trance is almost wholly successful.

Read Full Post »