Thursday, 26 November 2015

You shouldn’t have asked about Dubai.


If James McTeigue’s sub-Salt agent-on-the-run thriller had a self-awareness and sense of humour about its unbridled idiocy, it might feasibly have become really good fun. Instead, it’s left to Pierce Brosnan’s assassin, “the best operative in the business” to bring the entertainment value. He thunders through the proceedings like a permanent bad smell is lingering just under his nose, while Milla Jovovich’s titular Survivor is left wearing a permanent startled expression, the only one her rictus face seems able to convey.

Presumably no one thought much of Survivor’s box office prospects as it went to video on demand in the US, accompanied by a few grudging (probably contractual) cinema screenings. McTeigue only seems capable of delivering when he has the Wachowski siblings to mentor him, which may explain why he ended up plumping for this cheapie shot entirely in London and Bulgaria (despite a Times Square finale on New Year’s Eve). His action occasionally passes muster when it features Brosnan’s Nash (aka The Watchmaker) pursuing his quarry, but it’s more often often choppy and uninspired. Indeed, once Jovovich’s Kate Abbott manages to elude Nash and gets herself on a plane heading for the big climax, any semblance of suspense has departed with her.

If Philip Shelby’s screenplay wasn’t so roundly implausible and full of holes, one might take its nominal role as a propaganda piece seriously. It finishes with an onscreen caption announcing “ Since 9/11 American law enforcement has stopped 53 terrorist attacks in New York City alone”, although one wonders how many of these alleged potentialities were actually enabled by ever-loving undercover FBI operatives. Earlier, the picture’s thrall to combating the all-consuming threat of terrorism is announced by Kate having a flashback to the Twin Towers and the announcement that “She lost some of her best friends on 9/11”. I suppose its an achievement that in 14 years we’ve reached a point where its fair play to use the event as cheap emotional shorthand, rather than expunging it from screens lest it be deemed to upsetting (Zoolander).

9/11 also comes into play with the plan of the bad guys. It turns out these aren’t passionate zealots, intent on striking at the heart of America (well, apart from Roger Rees, in his final role, as the bomb maker fuelled by the desire for revenge against a corrupt state that… refused his dying wife’s Visa application. Of all the things he might have got upset about. The bastards.) For a movie so sucking up to the security services, it curiously decides to echo one of the conspiratorial loose ends of 9/11 previously referenced in Casino Royale; the Watchmaker notes that, when the New York exchanges opened after 9/11 “people who bet against the market made a fortune”. 

For Pavlou (Benno Furmann) this isn’t an act of terror or a bold political move, “it’s just about making money”; post the bombing he plans to make $100bn from similar short selling activity. Perhaps the picture is subversively suggesting that all such terrorism has a money motive somewhere at its core but, given its apology for a plot, I suspect it just plain isn’t aware of how incoherent its content is.

Kate, employed by the US Embassy in London, has been rooting out dodgy Visa applications, much to the ire of Ambassador Crane (Angela Bassett, bringing forth her best hard-nosed bitch), who doesn’t wish to cause any ruffled feathers with anyone. Colleague Bill Talbot (Robert Forster), working for the enemy under duress, reports this to his overlords who duly despatch Brosnan, “one of the most wanted assassins in the world” (talk about bigging someone up) to take her out. 

This is one of those pictures where everyone needs to be bloody-minded above and beyond the call of duty, from Crane to James D’Arcy’s police inspector (“The longer she lives, the more people die!”), where the protagonist can’t seem to twig why her would-be assassin is always on her tail despite her carrying around an ID card with a tracking chip in it, and who seems to think that donning a pair of spectacles will get her most wanted mug through airport security (hey, it works!)

Lest you think all is lost, though, there’s Pierce, roaming around London stabbing people in the neck (“You shouldn’t have asked about Dubai” he tells an overly chatty computer hacker) and destroying blocks of flats with a single bullet. He’s an unstoppable killing machine, until he isn’t. One of the great unintentionally funny lines in the picture finds Kate’s devoted colleague Sam (Dylan McDermott, who is to be commended for appearing in nothing but B movies) describing this uber-asssassin; “He’s had so much reconstructive surgery, no one knows what the hell he looks like”.

For one with such a towering reputation, the Watchmaker doesn’t especially show it; Brosnan donning a fake moustache is about the extent of his skills as a master of disguise. He also seems to send easily traceable courier services from his home address (quite what is going on with that elaborate bomb in a restaurant ruse is beyond me), and proves completely inept at accomplishing his task.

Either that or no one counted on Kate being so handy, as she hacks, slashes and generally scarpers from each successive encounter and explosion. It’s a shame she doesn’t cook as well, as she might have given Steven Seagal in his prime a run for his money. The Watchmaker’s inadequacies are never more evident than in the finale, where his plan to detonate the bomb is interrupted by resourceful Kate. She even quips “Time’s up” as he plummets to his death on the stroke of midnight. Alas, Milla’s never been one for comedy.

Kate, who earlier expressed doubts about her chosen career, is now convinced of the value of her role, the one where she fights terrorists all over the globe and generally snoops on everyone she possibly can, as we all should be; she saved over a million lives on New Year’s Eve, “So I guess this is what we’re doing with our lives”. Perhaps the most bizarre consequence of this budget-conscious affair is the casting of Frances de la Tour as Kate’s confidante within the US Embassy HQ. I think Miss Jones is supposed to be American, but I’m still not entirely sure.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Vodka martini, plenty of ice... if you can spare it.

Die Another Day

(SPOILERS) Is Die Another Day the worst Bond movie? It certainly puts in a sterling bid for that unenvied garland. It is a peculiar fish, though, spectacularly failing in its attempts to celebrate 40 years of the franchise and its status as the 20th official Bond outing. Wisely, these elements, while liberally included, aren’t damagingly foregrounded; they’re just there. If only the same were true of the picture’s more woefully ill-advised innovations; I’m all for the series experimenting stylistically, but Lee Tamahori’s decision to mess about with the frame rate and indulging in speed ramps are ugly and ill-fitting. Add to that some of the worst CGI ever witnessed in a $100m-plus budgeted motion picture, in a series that hitherto prided itself on keeping things as real as possible (at least the models were real models), and it’s no wonder there was a four-year lay-off and rethink in its wake.

The strangest thing about this outing, though, is that whenever I revisit it (not that often, granted) I fool myself into thinking it’s not that bad. The reason is fairly simple; the first half of the movie is actually quite enjoyable; it’s pacey, colourful, with several good set pieces and narrative conceits. Unfortunately, it goes straight off a (ice) cliff in the second, requiring Brosnan to engage in some CGI-wave parasurfing in response. Which only sinks it further. Die Another Day becomes interminably dull, and aesthetically unpleasant.

General Moon: I don’t approve of what they do here.
James Bond: Tell it to the concierge.

As has become par for the course for Pierce Brosnan’s era, it’s the shallowest of lead characters who must have some depth plied from him by any means possible. As a result, Bond is captured by the North Koreans (a new nation to make the villains! Well, if you don’t count Odd Job) at the end of the pre-credits sequence and undergoes imprisonment and torture (waterboarding, injected with scorpion venom, the usual routine).

As sadly becomes clear, the picture marries its nominal realism and earnest character beats far more disastrously with the greater plot than it did in the previous The World is Not Enough, such that the producers acknowledged they misjudged what fans wanted from the series. I think they actually mistake the botch that is Die Another Day for viewers rejecting the outlandish per se; it’s not that Bond can’t do another Moonraker, it’s that it really needs to know it wants to do another Moonraker. Die has probably the least stylistic coherence of any Bond picture as a consequence.

In another Brosnan era token gesture to real world issues, Bond is tracking down traffickers in conflict diamonds at the outset, with Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) and henchman Zao (Rick Yune) the perpetrators. Moon apparently dies (wait, anyone remember Sean Bean in Goldeneye?) and Zao ends up with a diamond-dashed faced. Following an attempt to make a hovercraft chase exciting (not really, and in a sign of how the movie is going, the close-ups are ever-obviously on a sound stage) and 14 months in a Korean nick, Bond is released in an exchange with Zao, now persona non grata as he’s under suspicion for squealing information that got a US agent killed.

So Bond is put in the “acting alone” position we saw in Licence to Kill and then in most of the Craig era; working outside the system (one that still believes in its right to police the world, as Colonel Moon scoffs) is the inevitable pullback from a broader disenchantment and disengagement with the establishment that has gradually seeped into the series post-Cubby Broccoli (can you imagine Sir Rog giving a shit about such things?) Bond’s 00 status is rescinded.

Added to which, there are echoes of the main thrust of The World is Not Enough, in which M said no to terrorists; here she tells Bond “Your freedom came at too high a price” (while Michael Madsen, doing his best Michael Madsen impression (he even smokes!) scoffs “Look at him, you’d think he was some kind of hero”; where’s he been for the last 40 years?) Bond has received the kind of treatment Elektra King did, but of course he hasn’t turned. There are a few nice touches during this sequence; the doctor noting “Liver no too good. It’s definitely him then”, and that he threw away his cyanide years ago – he’s not the suicidal type.

Aside from the rest of his activities being unofficial, though, this is a less encumbered Bond than we saw in The World is Not Enough. Which is good to an extent, but unfortunately Brosnan is given nothing of merit in the second half (mind you, neither is anyone else). His best scenes come with his casual escape from custody, dropping off the ship and arriving in a Hong Kong hotel in his PJs, a vision of wilderness man chic, all long hair, beard and chest rug, majestically holding in his belly.

Little he does later provides memorable signature moments. Using London Calling is a bit cheeky (The Clash blazing a trail for a pillar of the establishment?) for his trip back to Blighty (announcing the picture is soon to go down hill), and his swordfight with Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) is ridiculous but well choreographed, but once Bond moves on to Iceland all is lost. Indeed, are we really to believe the world’s foremost superspy wouldn’t check his weapon before removing it from under his pillow?

Jinx: I told you I was a jinx!

The posters for the picture, no doubt riding on the tails of her Oscar success, had Bond sharing equal status with Halle Berry’s Jinx. There were even rumours of a spin-off (although, can you imagine that now; she’s a heroine who works for the NSA). Which is mystifying, given how wooden she is. There’s zero chemistry with Brosnan, and, worse, an excruciating piece of innuendo-laden dialogue in Havana when first they meet that turns to ashes in their mouths (“So, what do predators do when the Sun goes down?”), leading to a hasty shag. Berry looks the part, particularly re-enacting Ursula Andress’ cossie moment from Dr. No, bus she isn’t a patch on Michelle Yeoh’s special agent in Tomorrow Never Dies, who had a far more persuasive rapport with Brosnan.

Miranda Frost: I know all about you – sex for dinner, death for breakfast.

It’s left to the lesser female co-star/henchperson to steal the acting honours, then, and Rosamund Pike is highly delectable (particularly in her finale bra top) as Miranda Frost (Frost, she’s an ice queen, geddit?) The only problem, aside from the legion elsewhere here, is that this is another leading lady betraying Bond straight after The World is Not Enough. It’s almost as if Wade and Purvis and Feirstein were devoid of inspiration…  The showdown between Frost and Jinx at the end is also rubbish, but no more so than the one between Bond and Graves, although Berry delivers her pay-off line terribly (in response to “I can read your every move”; “Read this, bitch!”)

Gustav Graves: I never get furious.

The choice of North Koreans for arch-villains caused some controversy, but I’d be more insulted that I was made antagonist in a shitty Bond movie. On top of which, there’s an implication that a Korean villain is a better villain if he’s actually British underneath (or over the top). The attempt here is to make a “classic” larger-than-life Bond villain of yesteryear, but it flounders hopelessly. 

I usually like Stephens (he’s superb in Black Sails), and I don’t think it’s so much his youth counting against him as he he’s encumbered with a really stupid character; you certainly can’t blame Bond for not figuring he’s really Colonel Moon, as there’s nothing remotely similar about them. Aside from the rage thing, telegraphed in the first scene where Moon is using his anger management therapist for kickboxing practice (in another movie that might have been a good gag, here it falls flat; Tamahori has little negligible for comic beats).

Gustav Graves: You see father, I remember my Art of War.

The face/ethnicity-change plot is silly, of course, but that’s not necessarily an impediment to a decent Bond movie; it’s where they end up taking it that kills the proceedings, and this element certainly pales into insignificance against the litany of other risible factors. Stephens appears to be going for OTT sneery swagger, but he lacks the relish of a Richard E Grant, coming across sub-Guy Pearce, and he isn’t even handed fun villainy to justify such behaviour. That’s the real reason the outlandish elements fail here; none of it is fun, and this approach really needs to be to work.

Grave’s scheme is so crappy you could miss it being explained if you blinked (his Icarus, light-giving satellite will cut a path through the Korean Demilitarised Zone, enabling North Korea to invade the South; yeah, good plan, so why did we have to spend 40 minutes in Iceland again?)

Zao: How’s that for a punch line?

Yune’s Zao is an inexpressive and unmemorable henchman, (“Sparkling personality”, as Bond puts it) whose most notable line comes as he punches Bond (above). Generally the gags fail to land, even in the cheesiest manner (Mr Kil: I am Mr Kil; Bond: That’s a name to die for).

It’s the list of outlandish elements that get the most flak in Die, though. And rightly so, from the invisible car, to the windsurfing CGI, to the less than impressive but still expensive Ice Palace, the Icarus satellite, the face-changing villain, the Goldfinger lasers (a messy, silly and just plain sad sequence), and Graves’ electro-zap armour.

As noted, the first half of the picture is quite reasonable, and it’s devoid of most of these elements. The Cuba sequence is particularly jolly, and the only part where David Arnold’s score stands out. Bond punching out a particularly deserving and uncouth South African is also a merit point, but this is where the use of ugly, choppy, then in vogue (God knows why) slow motion begins to adversely intrude on the action.

The Iceland section (not that Iceland is icy, but I guess they didn’t care) is outright terrible. The design is ugly, there’s incompetent mix and matching with the Eden project, and the action is slow and aimless, with no apparent objectives from either heroes or villains. As a result, we end up with interminably dull escape-and-capture scenario, one that includes inglorious speed ramping, as Bond outpaces the Icarus satellite (leading to the CGI parasurfing) and engages in an invisible car chase.

Then there’s the collapsing ice palace, and Zao being gratuitously impaled on an ice chandelier. Apparently Cubby Broccoli said a movie should never go back to the same place twice (Bond returns to the palace to rescue Jinx), and that may not be a catchall but it certainly proves to be the case here, particularly when the location was lousy the first time. The result is a visual mess, one where the cuts between studio and locations are glaringly obvious (none of the main cast went to Iceland, and it shows). It’s dreadfully apparent the trio of screenwriters were at a loss on how to structure the last half of the movie.

The picture doesn’t pick up any with the tiresome plane finale, an unspectacular litany of bad CGI and shaky cam. It serves to underline what an unengaging, noisy mess the picture has become.

James Bond: You know, you’re cleverer than you look.
Q: Mmm, still, better than looking cleverer than you are.

M is mainly a show in the first half, surprisingly not overpowering the movie as she would in the Craig era, and the other regulars have fairly decent brief turns. Colin Salmon has his third of three successive appearances as MI6 staffer Charles Robinson and, while John Cleese’s Q isn’t really the series’ best decision, at least you know what you’re getting (he’s also the last Q for a decade). 

The highlight is the near-final Moneypenny scene though, in which she finally gets to cop off with James (ah yes, I forget to mention the virtual reality element; very current, very early –‘90s). Unfortunately we don’t leave it there, as we revisit Bond and Jinx, and innuendos about leaving his 00-cock inside her.

Lest we forget, there are also the cameos, both of them pure cardboard. Oliver Skeate , a non-acting show jumper, delivers a line to Bond at the Blades Fencing Club, and Madonna provides him with good company (she doesn’t like cockfights, garnering a Razzie for her troubles). Her title song? It’s neither her nor the series’ finest hour, but both it and the accompanying visuals (torture, CGI scorpions) signal the gaudy, crude excess of Die’s last half, so I guess it’s in keeping.

Brosnan wanted Brett Ratner, and I’d like to say we dodged a bullet, although (I can't believe I’m going to say anything positive about him) at least he wouldn’t have gone in for speed ramping. I’d have favoured either of the other options (Stephen Hopkins, editor Stuart Baird) above him, although it shows just how set on malleable movie makers the series was even at this stage. No one was in the mix whose name could possibly vie with the Bond brand itself. 

Tamahori arrived full of bad ideas, it seems, from switching the final fight to the plane (it was to take place on a Japanese indoor beach) to the car chase in the ice palace (he thought it was too good a set not to use…) I seem to recall thinking he was a positive choice when his name was announced, because he at least had action experience (unlike Michael Apted). That ability is seen, more or less, during the early stages, but all competence appears to desert him after that.

Maybe there was a hex on Bond from uber-Royal Premieres? The Queen previously got her lizard claws into You Only Live Twice, another contender for worst Bond. But then, Casino Royale broke that possible curse, it seems. Die Another Day was, of course, another massive hit, the sixth highest grosser of 2002 globally, showing that, provided it doesn’t cost too too much ($142m; Eon should have sued the effects house) a profit is guaranteed for any old 00-toss. No doubt the expense was even less of a dent than it appeared, what with the surfeit of (20-odd items) product placement. A good judge in such matters, Sir Rog didn’t much like the movie, opining that, even as a Bond who’d been into space, it went too far: “Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage. Please!” He’s not wrong.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

My dear Miss Everdeen, make no mistake. The game is coming to its end.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

(SPOILERS) Well, it’s better than Part 1. Although not the last YA franchise to dubiously split its finale in two, there’s no obvious inheritor to The Hunger Games’ crown of rampant billion dollar grossing hit. As such, we may see fewer such desperate cash grabs in future (I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath for The Divergent Series: Allegiant and The Divergent Series: Ascendant). Arguably, the bean counter led strategy – whatever lofty notions director Francis Lawrence professes regarding the decision’s legitimacy – has led to an uneven, laborious second half of a movie series that set off at a fair old clip. So, while The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Deux focuses in on its theme of the moral vacuum that accompanies authoritarian structures reasonably successfully, it finishes up very much lesser to the shamelessly crowd-pleasing first two outings.

Which come down to Russell Crowe’s Gladiator shtick: “Are you not entertained?” Daft as the premise of The Hunger Games is (admittedly, it passes for wholly credible when jostling for space with The Maze Runner or Divergent), it’s essential conceit of gladiatorial combat between bright (and not so bright) young things is an instantly winning formula. It’s no coincidence that, for all its earnest ruminations regarding nominal system change, propaganda and power corrupting absolutely, Mockingjay – Part 2 is at its most spirited when rehearsing yet another (unofficial) games; as Finn (Sam Claflin) even obligingly suggests “Welcome to the 76th Hunger Games”.

Which rather highlights that, for all its ability to communicate worthy themes to a wide audience, The Hunger Games’ aspirations get bogged down in self-importance whenever it opts to acknowledge this head-on. That’s when the commentary feels at its most YA; when calls upon Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) to deliver an impromptu speech (most notably to a would-be assassin), or a character sets out why Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) feels threatened by Katniss’ influence, just like President Snow (Donald Sutherland), rather than letting the audience realise this themselves. 

When it does show, the effects are invariably potent, such as Coin bombing the shield of children assembled outside Snow’s palace in a topical false flag operation (well, topical if you entertain conspiracy theories) or Katniss taking out the incumbent president during Snow’s public execution. As with most big movies with a political bent it tends to deliver when it doesn’t let on that it only has so much to say, actually (see also Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

But part of this is also comes back to allowing itself far too much time wallowing in a mire of introspection of its own making. We already got the message about Katniss as a poster child for the new order, and her mixed feelings about it, in Part Un, so pressing the point during the first half of the picture feels like overkill. This repetition ensures Mockingjay – Part 2 drags for long stretches, to the extent that it frequently feels like an unhurried prestige mini-series adaption, dotting every i and crossing every t of a sacred text.

Such reverence also leads to a number of structurally unwieldy choices (the assault on the palace looks headed for a grand climax, but then Katniss passes out all-aflame and we’re forced to regroup; it sucks all the energy out of the frame). Jennifer Lawrence good as she is, is unable to carry that weight of such pacing problems solo, and there isn’t enough substance in other roles to take up the slack. 

While the “adults” in the cast are generally fine actors, few of them have enough going on to make them truly intriguing. Moore’s Coin proves disappointingly undifferentiated when she goes as far as suggesting a Hunger Games for the Capitol kids (paint her as a baddie, sure, but not quite so clumsily/overtly) and there are too many good actors (Gwendoline Christie, Stanley Tucci, Robert Knepper) reduced to a single scene.

Others stir and repeat (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly in his final performance, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks – although a little Effie goes a long way) with little of note to show for it. At least Michelle Forbes has a decent role in the mid-section of the picture as a very Michelle Forbes not-to-be-messed-with lieutenant, while Sutherland (who like Mr Bronson in Grange Hill, has to pay) relishes the chance to bring silky menace during the closing sections. In particular, there’s his marvellous reaction on realising who Katniss’ arrow has sought out, a brief amusement before the crowd, baying for blood, descend on him.

There are similar problems of representation with the younger cast. The ones who cause spark to fly, Claflin, Jena Malone and Natalie Dormer (who, along with Pollux decides not to go the distance in getting rid President Snow, which as played is a bit abrupt and possibly chicken livered), aren’t given paltry screen time, and we’re expected to find the inert love triangle between Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) involving. Unfortunately, Lawrence must choose between two guys who don’t exactly bring the charisma, and she opts for the titch with whom she has zero chemistry. 

I wouldn’t be quite so unkind to Hutcherson as to label him the Taylor Lautner of The Hunger Games, since he can approximate a performance – although I’m not sure I could take another scene of Peeta frothing about his brainwashing – but it’s impossible to be invested in Katniss and Peeta luxuriating with their burgeoning brood in a golden meadow come the final scene (which seems to take an eternity to get to; I was half expecting a further cut to Old Gammy Katniss). Perhaps Peeta’s conditioning will kick in once again during the closing credits?

The differing moral philosophies of Katniss and Gale provide a strong enough dividing line for why it isn’t to be between them, but it might have done the picture more of a service to present his case less brusquely. Likewise, the blunt response of Johanna over whether there should be a Capitol games; too frequently the picture takes the easy route of Katniss being all on her own on her moral high ground. 

That’s a failing generally, though; there might have been some agency in charting an ambiguous course we see with the uncertain political future of the districts (people have short memories, we are told; they’re definitely in trouble with Patina Miller’s Paylor, who doesn’t fare well with lines like “the sadistic inventions of game makers meant to make sport of our deaths”). Accordingly, Katniss doesn’t end up with gumby Peeta out of love. Rather, it’s an attempt to find stability between two broken people. If that was the intent, it doesn’t translate because her relationship with Peeta has never been convincing on any level.

The action though, when it comes, is top notch, as you’d expect from Lawrence. Perhaps also as you’d expect from Lawrence (the helmer of I Am Legend) he has a penchant for CGI beasties (and CGI oil), although the Mutts here are rather better rendered than Will Smith’s adversaries. That sequence is fairly intense Aliens-grade stuff for a 12-certificate, although, by this point in the movie, it’s become patently obvious that Katniss carrying a bow around a war zone is about the dumb as, I don’t know, one of the Avengers using it as his weapon of choice. Even stronger is the lack of punch pulling in the aforementioned infant massacre. The picture’s to be congratulated for not making war fun, although alas it’s mostly only really good when war is fun, as the deadly game of booby traps and dismemberments through the streets of the Capitol attests.

It will be interesting to see how studio Lionsgate’s fortunes fare now their half-decade-plus of YA coffers-fillers has run dry. The moderately successful at best Divergent is probably closer to what any studio should expect if they’re lucky, given the copious corpses of failed YA fare strewn across the last few years, rather than the Twilights and Hunger Games. As for The Hunger Games’ legacy, as with Harry Potter it was an error to split its final instalment. Mockingjay – Part 2, and its immediate predecessor, will probably be awarded merit points by devotees of the novels, for whom more is usually more, but the decision has hobbled the potential of what was a naturally cinematic series.