Saturday, 30 April 2016

There’s something going on inside the government that’s really wrong, and I can't ignore it.

Movies on My Mind
Week Ending 30 April 2016

Snowden

The trailer for Snowden is kind of hilarious, making everyday Ed into a prodigy and airport novel hero as it sexes-up the thriller elements, all the while accompanied by Joseph Gordon-Levitt determinedly reproducing the cadences of NSA’s most wanted man. It’s a strange, unwieldy mismatch, but should that really be a surprise? Oliver Stone has been on a steady decline ever since he ran out of things he really wanted to say following JFK, and his jackdaw meanderings over material that ripe for interrogation since (even leaving aside the conspiracy potential), be it Nixon, World Trade Centre, W. or this, suggests a man actively renouncing his reputation, and in doing so delivering work that, while it may be competent, has no one really talking about it. Which is surely exactly what it should do. Maybe Stone just isn’t angry any more – maybe all that ayahuasca has fried his brain – but for too long he’s been reduced to little more than a technically proficient filmmaker producing indifferent material.

There are several striking aspects of the trailer, though, besides JGL’s vocal performance. Namely, Rhys Ifans doing what appears to be an impersonation of Sam Elliot, the sight of Nic Cage in a (relatively: I’m not suggesting anyone will actually go and see this) mainstream movie, complete with a pronunciation of “haystack” that makes Tony Hancock’s announcement of “HHHH-ancock’s Half Hour” seem restrained, Ed having sex – and being surveilled! – and cybersphere visuals that look like they were used 10 years ago in an ad for online dating.


Alita: Battle Angel

James Cameron’s publicity machine appears to have woken from its slumber over the past few weeks, with all the talk of Avatar sequels and now the long in development Alita: Battle Angel moving forward with news of the potential lead (Rose Salazar, Maika Monroe or Zendaya).

I have no investment in the source manga, which appears to be yet another example of Cameron working through his ongoing obsession with masculinised women, but I do wonder if his choice of director suggests he is sitting high in his very own Xanadu hatching hare-brained schemes for the hell of it. Of all the possible talents out there, he chooses Robert Rodriguez? While Cameron has defied the odds in his directing career, not everything he touches turns to gold. Dark Angel managed to survive three seasons based on his name, but it hardly set the world on fire, or made Jessica Alba much of a star. Who knows if a similarly indifferent fate awaits Battle Angel; it surely stands at least as much chance of being really, really good as Ghost in the Shell. I’m just glad Rodriguez’ Barbarella remake never came to anything.

The Flash

In the pantheon of bright ideas, giving the untested Seth Graham-Smith (as a successful screenwriter, let alone as a director) the reins of The Flash has to rank up there with the brief period when Robert Orci was attached to Star Trek 3. Did more sensible studio heads prevail, or was it really the cited “creative differences” that saw him exit?

Word is of Warner Bros turmoil over the state and fate of the DC Universe in the wake of Batman v Superman, but alas nothing can turn the tide on the already in production Justice League, martialled by jock-auteur Zach Snyder, so I guess it makes sense to take swipes at the tentative offshoots of their broken multiple franchise starter. Would it be such a disaster if James Wan left Aquaman? If he can genuinely make if fun, yes, but I’m doubtful, on the face of it, that he’ll be able to impress such a sensibility on the glowering beardiness of Jason Momoa, courtesy of Snyder’s vision.

DreamWorks Animation

The excitement over the $3.8bn sale of DreamWorks Animation to Comcast/Universal has provoked many a column inch on Universal mimicking the empire Disney has created through a decade of acquisitive manoeuvres (Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm). You can’t really argue with the Mouse House success story, and while it seems regulators just nod passively at every new stride towards industry monopolisation and consequent reduction of variety, they did block Comcast’s bid for Time Warner Cable.

The strategy to place Despicable Me and Illumination Entertainment brain Chris Melendandri in the equivalent of the John Lasseter position at Disney-Pixar, overseeing DreamWorks creative content as well as his Illumination duties, further emphasises knowing a good business strategy to snaffle when you see it. But, if that’s a sign of things to come, all may not be rosy.

Arguably, Disney animation has been rekindled under the eye of Lasseter, even if their traditional animation has dried up completely. Pixar, though, has become increasingly bankrupt creatively, relying on sequels to prop up what was once an exemplar of creativity and originality. And, when it has tried something new (last year), it had to balance a big hit with by far its biggest failure. I guess the plus side is that neither Illumination nor DreamWorks can profess to histories of following other than the lowest common denominator, but somewhere along the line someone is sure to lose out in this.

The Nice Guys

The Deadline Hollywood comments section probably isn’t the first port of call for erudite insights into movies, but calling out Warner Bros for a trailer seemingly designed to evoke memories of Grindhouse is pretty dead-on. Their marketing department didn’t seem to have much idea of how to sell The Nice Guys from the start, and now they’ve evidently given up all hope, reduced to appealing to the five people who think a dirt and grime, mis-spliced retro-vibe is cool. Given the debacle that was the selling of the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration this is tantamount to an admission of defeat. In distinction to that mess, I have high hopes for Shane Black’s film, but it already looks like another great movie of his no one will go and see (after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).


Twin Peaks

The cast list announced at the beginning of the week for Twin Peaks included various interesting and eclectic names (Jim Belushi, Monica Belucci – perhaps they will play a married couple and keep their surnames –  Richard Chamberlain, Ernie Hudson, Robert Knepper, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew Lillard, Max Perlich, Tim Roth, John Savage, Tom Sizemore) as well as Lynch universe prior detainees (Balthazar Getty, Naomi Watts). Jeremy Davies’ appearance should be no surprise; his entire acting career has been leading up to a role in a David Lynch project.

Of course, I’m most excited by Miguel Ferrer, Russ Tamblyn and – yes! – David Duchovny coming back. Perhaps they’ll even find James Marshall something to do, other than pout a lot and ride his bike. They’ve even found a place for Alicia Witt, which is quite something.

Most notable are the non-shows. No Man from Another Place Michael J Anderson, no Sheriff Truman Michael Ontkean (Robert Forster is playing the sheriff, it has been suggested, although whether this is Truman or another sheriff is unclear; Forster was in the running for the Truman role first time out), no Annie (which is a crying shame, as of all the original cast Heather Graham has only improved over the intervening quarter of a century).

Also no Chris Isaak (perhaps Lynch is swapping in musicians; Trent Reznor and Eddie Vedder both appear) or Keifer Sutherland, so it could be the Fire Walk with Me continuity, despite Harry Dean Stanton’s involvement, will be on a backburner. Mention of the movie is also a reminder that, sadly, we can’t expect a reappearance from David Bowie’s indelible Philip Jeffries.


As for the absence of Kenneth Welsh as Windom Earle, who was, in my view, the saviour of the second season, it may be suggestive of Lynch wishing to avoid some of the detours the series made during that run, but it’s still a significant hole to fill. It’s certainly notable that neither Bob nor Earle, the main villains of the show, are back (although, Ray Wise, as dead dad Leland, features in some capacity).

Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

We need to put the Hellfire through that roof right now.

Eye in the Sky
(2015)

(SPOILERS) The movies can’t get enough of drones, whether its critiquing them in indie features no one will see, utilising them as the stock-in-trade explosive plot device of the average blockbuster, or simply making the pictures themselves with them. Last year we were graced with the indulgent angst fest of a boozy Ethan Hawke going off the deep end in Good Kill; it was solid on the incongruity of delivering destruction from a storage crate in Vegas, much less so on the personal demons of its main character. The plus side of largely limiting itself to a character piece was that writer-director Andrew Niccol honed in on the disconnect between worlds. Eye in the Sky is much more traditional in that regard, addressing its subject matter through a high-stakes mission in progress. As such, it stands as a more effective as a piece of storytelling, even if that story assumes the sanctity and rectitude of the War on Terror, and picks relatively easy targets from which to fashion its moral quandaries.


Which, essentially, revolve around the utilitarian doctrine espoused by the military, based on probabilities of collateral damage (the minimum number of innocent casualties resulting from a strike versus the maximum loss of life perpetrated by a suicide bomber). There’s never any question here of the pervasive threat of the Islamic menace lurking at every street corner and in every dwelling place, plotting to sacrifice their next willing participant in the eternal fight against Western values. But then, Gavin Hood, once the director of Tsotsi and the quite-good-up-to-a-point Rendition, has already put on his self-righteous hat about Eye in the Sky’s virtues vis-à-vis London Has Fallen (“How can you put out such a piece of racist garbage and think it isn’t strategically detrimental to the fight against extremism?”), suggesting he doesn’t see how his own feature seamlessly slots into the prevailing narrative.


He even suggested Gerard Butler should be ashamed of making London Has Fallen, although The Guardian interviewer failed to ask whether X-Men Origins: Wolverine elicited that very response from Hood himself. Hood said “I think they have made a film they think is cool. And that’s repugnant”. You couldn’t accuse Eye in the Sky of thinking it’s cool, but it’s probably guilty of equally crass, manipulative tactics in its own way (I say probably, because I’ve only seen Olympus Has Fallen thus far, and while I’m obviously very much looking forward to London, it will just have to wait).


Eye is a picture that loads its deck at every turn in order to run through its treadmill of moral musings. I wouldn’t say the result reveals Hood as a glib philosopher per se, so much as one who clearly doesn’t perceive how his attempts to inject substance and debate into mainstream movies have been left wanting; his last film was the adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which similarly revolved around utilitarian debates on the greater good legitimising the suffering of the few, or the other, and also fell short of its aspirations.


Guy Hibbert’s Eye screenplay is actually most rewarding when it probes the legalese and bureaucratic minefield of a proposed action, simply because Hood can find no way to massage the accompanying moral baggage without indulging in emotive overkill. Alan Rickman’s lieutenant general even calls the picture out accordingly at one point, querying whether the assembled politicians would be vacillating over whether to approve the strike on residence housing two wanted terrorist suspects (and a suicide bomber loaded up and ready to blow) if someone other than an adorable little girl selling bread was smack bang in the fall-out zone.


But, of course, there has to be an adorable little girl selling bread (who isn’t really that adorable, she’s an ardent capitalist who takes the opportunity to sell the loaves twice; perhaps this is why she has to die).


And, of course, there have to be bluntly manifested motivators to the plot. Helen Mirren’s Colonel wants to get her kill by any means necessary, even if that means manufacturing damage estimates to ensure the go ahead. The weasely politicians want to pass the buck to a man (which is moderately amusing, and both Jeremy Northam and Iain Glen – the latter amid a terrible attack of toilet troubles while making a presentation at an arms fair, of which I couldn’t decide if this was Hood attempting to make a point about the self-perpetuating nature of conflict, but I suspect not – acquit their characters in an appropriately gutless manner).


But Monica Dolan’s liberal squealer seems written to be loathed for taking the moral high ground, particularly so when Rickman reprimands her for suggesting a soldier might observe a casual attitude to life-and-death decision making (“Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”). Hood’s desperately keen to be fair to the idea of a justification for such remote-controlled death dealing, provided all appropriate precautions are taken, and give him his due for not wanting to be drawn into absolutes, but the conversation becomes far less provocative once you’ve given ground at the outset.


The level of contrivance does much to undermine the earnestness with which Hood treats his telling. After a certain point, the continued delays to the go-ahead become merely farcical. Which may be the point when it comes to Whitehall bureaucracy, but it feels more like the obvious artifice of a plot doing its darnedest to work its audience. Every detail, from Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) being required to squeeze his unlikely drone tech (that humming bird wouldn’t fool Inspector Clouseau) into ever tighter spaces while being prevailed upon by an annoying kid and trigger-happy Kenyan troops, to Aaron Paul (in a decent big screen showing, there may be hope for him yet beyond Breaking Bad) as a pilot baulking at killing a little cutie, is shameless button-pushing that can only serve to turn the debate into a glossy feigning of seriousness.


Formidable as Mirren and Rickman (in his last screen appearance, although he has some upcoming voice work; he will be missed) are, and they’re naturally commanding, neither really convinces as a military type. Perhaps that’s Hood wanting to disarm us of our expectations, in hand with emphasising the artifice and remoteness of their locations, what with Rickman bookended by buying a doll for his granddaughter and Mirren proving the most ruthless customer in the movie, but it nevertheless feels a little like dress-up. Hood’s a decent filmmaker, of course. No auteur, but he has a good, clear facility with pace, editing, geography and structure, so he ensures that, even as you remain dubious of the picture’s capacity for depth, you’re drawn in.


Eye in the Sky will doubtless become yet another War on Terror movie no one sees. American Sniper aside, naturally. Was that one acceptable because it eschewed liberal handwringing? After all, none of them have really interrogated the struggle being struggled against, merely the methods involved. As a result, even the better ones are somewhat toothless, supporting the established doctrine by default. This one does itself no favours by portraying those waging the good fight as painfully well-meaning, fearful of voters, or at least couching themselves in the language of the righteous cause. The only actually bad people get blown up. Along with the adorable little girl.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Your boyfriend isn't real. We made him.

American Ultra
(2015)

(SPOILERS) One would probably be mistaken to put the apparently unstoppable ascent of Max Landis down to Hollywood nepotism. After all, it isn’t as if anyone has been battering down his dad’s door offering him work over the past couple of decades. I suspect the truth is closer to the means by which Seth Grahame-Smith established himself, through readily recognisable gimmicks (of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies genre mash-up variety); Landis has an aptitude for an easy (as in facile), high concept soundbite, of the sort studio execs love to hear, which firmly precludes any attempt to evaluate whether there’s anything of value in them, let alone the finished screenplays. Which is where American Ultra comes in. An appealing-enough premise, even a half-decent trailer. But as a movie, it’s a stinker.


The kernel comes from the legendary MKUltra psy-ops programmes, whereby the CIA would programme/brainwash operatives to do their bidding. It’s a fascinating part of dark (as in not really all that mainstream) US twentieth (and twenty-first, it’s not as if it has all gone away suddenly) history, ideal fodder for the conspiracy-minded, and great subject matter for a Hollywood thriller. Provided the mettle is sufficiently grasped.


It has, of course, been tinkered with; Jason Bourne is essentially a programmed super-assassin, but a faulty one who has developed a conscience and is thus granted the thrilling skill set of a merciless killing machine, but in the reconstituted form of a hero. The Manchurian Candidate was the first picture to really set the cat among the pigeons in this regard, suggesting the establishment’s capacity for eliminating inconvenient political targets prior to the Kennedy assassinations. One could have a high old time in terms of movie potential just documenting the backgrounds and activities of the initiators of the MKUltra project, their theories and experiments, and the whole Nazi legacy, without needing to wrap in the palatable antiseptic scepticism that comes via its iteration in The Men Who Stare at Goats.


From the evidence of Landis’ screenplay, he didn’t even deign to read the Wiki-page on the subject, rather gleaning his marginal insights from movies themselves. Which, I guess, is legitimate, if you want to be responsible for strictly D-grade movies. Mike Howell (Jess Eisenberg, convincingly cast as a befuddled stoner, less so as an invincible death machine) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, their second of three pairings to date) live in a small, middle-of-nowhere town, getting majorly mashed while Mike tries and fails to leave amid difficulty expressing his thoughts and phobias to his ever-attentive partner.


His yen for getting out, rather than getting out of it, has attracted the attention of CIA up-and-comer Topher Grace, however, who summarily orders their ex-asset iced. Yes, Mike’s mental health issues don’t result from copious weed, but from being subjected to government mind control. Which is, of course, something anyone who has been regularly stoned has been paranoid about at some point, but is depicted in such a banal fashion by director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and his (no doubt stoned) writer as to render it creatively a bummer.


Nourizadeh’s action – and the chance to see the worm, or geek, turn, to satisfying effect, clearly the whole point of the exercise – is often incoherent and poorly-paced, accompanied by a noisy soundtrack from Marcelo Zarvos that’s trying and failing to paper over cracks where the editing is at a loss. Nourizadeh has little aptitude for the humour either, much of which, like the premise, has been borrowed from better movies (“He was armed with a spoon, sir”; if you’re going to steal, steal from Chronicles of Riddick).


As for his martialling of the actors. The leads are fine, but Walton Goggins and his magnificently, miraculously regrown hair is irritatingly, rather than appealingly OTT. As is Grace’s increasingly-frustrated CIA nemesis; ridiculous and annoying, and not remotely believable or threatening. John Legiuizamo, continuing with a recent parade of cameos, some of them solid, makes a mark as a paranoid dealer, while Tony Hale can’t help but turn his character into Tony Hale.


This is, at least, brief. But it’s also highly questionable in intent. Come the final scene, Mike and his handler Phoebe (now that was a surprise) are back working for the agency, free from moral qualms. We’re supposed to celebrate their choice, because it’s, like, cool. Which, I suspect, extends to Landis’ criteria with any given writing project. At one point It looks as if Mike might be having a flashback to being programmed as an operative from childhood (shots of boarding a school bus, fitting in with tales from those syphoned off from normal lessons for special careers from an early age), but then we find he simply signed up at 18. That might have given the picture a frisson, but probably not. It’s studiously safe and unchallenging throughout.


Perhaps Landis himself has been programmed, but to churn out formulaic bullshit. Perhaps Chronicle will remain that one exception in both his and Josh Trank’s careers. Somehow, Max has been let loose on a new version of Dirk Gently; at least we we have the half-decent BBC4 version of a few years back. He’s also hit the jackpot with Netflix, which has paid a Shane Black-in-his-heyday-esque $3m for spec script Bright, about cops in a world where orcs and fairies live among humans (that sort of concept worked really well for R.I.P.D., after all). With that and the Adam Sandler deal, their original movie programming isn’t exactly off to a persuasive start.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Scare the fangs out of the kid.

Hotel Transylvania 2
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Young audiences either had pre-Halloween treat-stuffed indifference or actually really liked the original, as this sequel somehow improved on the box office performance of the first. Everyone’s back (except CeeLo Green), not exactly to diminishing returns because its predecessor wasn't exactly stridently breaking new ground, strikingly funny, or stylistically noteworthy, but nevertheless, to diminishing returns. On that basis, Sandler has hit upon the less-than-bright ideas of a marriage, a baby, and a grumpy grandad. Even the latter, wheeling out Mel brooks’ vocal chords, fails to inject life into Hotel Transylvania 2, despite initially flirting with the idea.


This time Sandler even warrants a screenplay credit (with the returning Robert Smigel), so if you weren’t levelling the blame his way before, he’s abundantly fair game now. There isn’t a note struck here that isn’t the most criminally unsubtle, from Dracula training baby grandchild to be the apple of his eye (see also Big Daddy) to reactionary attitudes to child safety and how it was all so much better when he was a boy.


Most damningly, the picture has none of the courage of its lukewarm convictions regarding acceptance and tolerance, as the fears voiced by Jonathan over the bairn (“If Dennis grows up to be just like you, I’ll be the luckiest girl in the world” assures Mavis), and the concern that the monstrous extended family won’t accept him, become irrelevant with the revelation that he isn’t a nobody everyday kid, he’s really a special, chosen one, once his fangs grow out (“Am I cool now?” he asks Dracula, receiving the patently untrue response, since he’s a ginger apart from anything else, “You were always cool”). It’s an enormous cop-out, but one you can see coming from the first, alas. There’s also the goddam music to contend with; if it’s not irritating euphorica trash, it’s Sandler himself, complete with banjo.


Are there any positives to be taken away from Genndy Tarakovsky’s rancid sequel? Apart from for Sony that is, who have a third instalment lined up for 2018? And for Sandler, who gets to maintain a slender presence on cinema screens now the majority of his output has transferred to Netlfix? Well, the gags about the hairpiece from Bram Stoker’s Dracula raised a smile, even if they relate to a nearly a quarter-of-a-century-old target. And the possessed Cookie Monster is exactly the sort of thing this should have been doing. But that aside… Am I being too hard on this? It’s just for kids, after all. Not really, no. Not when almost every other major studio can produce superior animated movies (maybe the Weinsteins aside, but I did say major studio) in their sleep.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

No, don’t do that. Don’t give me the pouty bat face.

Hotel Transylvania
(2012)

Typically soft-centred, biteless Adam Sandler vehicle, with little to commend in terms of director Genndy Tartakovskys stylistic displays (or lack thereof; he appears to favour the kind of single plane, group compositions more common to the worlds of sitcom or theatre), Hotel Transylvania’s most noteworthy aspect is how incredibly undemanding it is. Consequently, give all the other animation out there, at every turn, most of it significantly superior, it should count itself very lucky to have found an audience and merited a sequel.


Even the premise is entirely obvious, which may explain why Sandler and co can find little, apart from the bleeding obvious, to do with it. Monsters are long-since harmless and just misunderstood, and so, nursing a morbid fear of humans, Sandler’s Dracula has established the titular retreat as a safety zone, away from us all. The extended entourage in this Sony picture includes the usual Universal horror line-up, naturally voiced by Sandler chums: Wolfman (Buscemi), the Mummy (CeeLo Green), the Invisible Man (David Spade) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Kevin James). Given the cast and complement, it should be no surprise that the gag level is up to the usual bereft standards of Sandler’s live-action comedies, just with a smidgeon less crudity.


Accordingly, the screenplay credit goes to with Robert Smigel (various Saturday Night Lives and the unmitigated shite that is You Don’t Mess with the Zohan) and Peter Baynham, who has worked on some solid shows (Alan Partridge) so ought to know better, but is also a cohort of Sacha Baron Cohen and contributor to his very variable output, including the recent The Brothers Grimsby, so maybe his presence isn’t so surprising.


Hotel Transylvania is mostly a saccharine-centred movie all about family, most specifically the relationship between Drac and his daughter Mabel (Selena Gomez, although the character seems to have been modelled on the kid from Californication). At the tender age of 118, she wants to get out there and see the world, against daddy’s wishes (he’s classically over-protective), only for a human Jonathan (Andy Samberg) to arrive and fall in love with her. Jonathan is just about the worse character they might have conceived, an airhead dude with a heart of gold, made all the more irritating because he’s required to be ultimately accepted to the bosom of the reluctant Vlad.


Interspersed are various musical interludes, unforgivably including the dreaded vocoder. Consistent is the lack of flair and uninspired tone. Sandler's Dracula is agreeably voiced, I guess, there’s a reasonable sheep-in-the-road visual gag, followed by a better sheep-in-the-road one (“I’ve got this one” promises Wolfman), but on this evidence Sony is definitely bringing up the rear, with Universal and Fox’s animation houses carving out their own turf at the expense of the traditional Disney/DreamWorks stranglehold (well, particularly at the expense of the latter). Hotel Transylvania makes fellow studio animations such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs seem like stone cold classics in comparison.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.