Sunday, August 28, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

From the outset, let me say that I wasn’t all that keen on the first two films in the rebooted franchise. In fact, I’m not that keen on J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker, period. (I’ll give him a pass for ‘Super 8’ but that’s more to do with how likeable its young cast is.) But even then I wondered how much of a trade-up it would actually be to have Justin Lin in the director’s chair … beyond, y’know, a better facility with action scenes and no fucking lens flares.

Turned out it could have been more or less anyone in the director’s chair; what makes ‘Star Trek Beyond’ the best instalment by a mile in the new timeline is Simon Pegg as co-writer of the script. He’s canny enough to keep the banter and interaction between the half dozen central characters to the forefront, and ensure that it’s their ingenuity and camaraderie which provides a response to the immediate threat rather than a rush of effects-driven techno-babble.

Not that the CGI doesn’t show off the budget to the full, particularly in an extended sequence where a rescue mission turns into a battle for survival and the USS Enterprise comes under attack from a ferocious and seemingly indestructible enemy. In short order, the starship is ripped apart, the command deck saucer crash lands in hostile territory, escape pods are swiped out of the sky and their occupants imprisoned, and Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Pegg) find themselves split up behind enemy lines, the latter making contact with Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a scavenger who has managed to evade the hostile forces.

And the hostile forces in question? Well, they’re under the command of Krall (Idris Elba, submerged under prosthetics), who wants to get his hands on a superweapon and wreak havoc on the nearby Yorktown, a Federation starbase that’s an orgasm of production design. Seriously, think Larry Niven’s Ringworld as designed by M.C. Escher. And why does Krall want to unleash hell on this peaceful and dizzyingly detailed settlement? Because he hates the Federation for their philosophy of unity and cooperation, and feels the only way forward is a doctrine of inward-looking fascistic aggressiveness. Which kind of makes ‘Star Trek Beyond’ a sci-fi Brexit parable with the Federation as the EU and Krall as Nigel Farage only more photogenic and in possession of opposable thumbs.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Either way, what ‘Star Trek Beyond’ has is spades is fun (the dialogue zings where in the previous outings it was leaden and self-important) and a genuine sense of adventure. After all, this is a ‘Star Trek’ film which opens with a captain’s log that basically features Kirk going “I’m really really really bored” and even when, quarter of an hour later, his ship’s getting trashed and the odds are overwhelming, Pine conveys a real sense that Kirk would rather be at the epicentre of chaos than doing so paperwork and having an early night.

Speaking of Pine, a combination of script and performance lifts his characterisation of Kirk from annoying wiseass to someone you can actually root for. The rest of the cast do dependable work, though I found Urban – an actor I generally have a lot of time for – somewhat more stilted in his performance than previously. That, however, is my only real gripe.

Well, that and the absence of a semi-colon from the title. But then again ‘Star Trek’ revels in the most famous split infinitive in history, so maybe the Federation has no place for grammar Nazis, and that’s fair enough. This particular pedant had more fun with this movie than other summer tentpole offering this year, so here’s to more Trekking with Lin at the helm and Pegg on writing duties – and, gentlemen, you can do what you like with the English language.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Lights Out

David F. Sandberg’s ‘Lights Out’ shares a few touchstones with ‘The Babadook’: both are debut features extrapolated from an earlier short film; both have as their antagonist a silhouetted almost-human figure with hands tapering to knife-like fingers; and both develop their quotient of horror from the reality of depression and grief. But whereas ‘The Babadook’ demonstrates a stark understanding of how two bereaved people can psychologically gouge chunks out of each other, ‘Lights Out’ uses its depression/grief element merely as a plot device.

The sufferer here is Sophie (Maria Bello), whose husband Paul (Billy Burke) is viscerally despatched in the textile warehouse he manages in an opening sequence that makes good on everything the trailer promised in terms of creepiness, ramped up tension and big scare moments. Sophie’s already in a bad place and behaving irrationally, as evidenced in a facetime conversation between Paul and his son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) just minutes before Paul buys it.

Her behaviour intensifies in the aftermath. She has long and emotive conversation with someone who isn’t there. Then all of sudden mom’s imaginary friend doesn’t seem to be so imaginary anymore and Martin is having problems sleeping. Enter Martin’s adult step-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), long since moved out due to her fractious relationship with Sophie – not to mention a few buried memories that come to the fore when Martin’s school, worried about his well-being, can’t get hold of Sophie and call Rebecca instead.

Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer quickly establish a tug of war for Martin between Sophie and Rebecca, with well-meaning school nurse Emma (Andi Osho) and Rebecca’s sometime consort Brett (Alexander DiPersia) on the sidelines. Kudos to them for not overdoing the melodrama in this respect, and simply being content to sketch in the interrelationships in fast and broad strokes before wheeling the supernatural back on stage and keeping the tension at tendon-wrenching levels for the rest of the film.

Because that’s essentially what ‘Lights Out’ is: a delivery system for squirmily tense set-pieces punctuated by jump-out-of-your-seat moments. It’s an exercise in framing shots for maximum didn’t-something-move-in-the-background-or-didn’t-it head-fuckery. The beautifully simple concept – hammered home in the marketing campaign – is irresistible: creepy thing disappears when the lights go on but gets closer when they go out. And because creepy thing is supernatural, it can cheerfully fuck around with fuse boxes and entire city grids. Not to mention – a little goal-post-shifter that Sandberg and Heisserer introduce late in the game – being impervious to certain forms of artificial lighting.

So efficiently does ‘Lights Out’ get on with the business of first unsettling then outright scaring the piss out of its audience, that it almost seems curmudgeonly to criticise the script, but it has to be said: there is some lazy fucking writing going on here. Rebecca and Brett’s relationship scenes generate all the chemistry and human drama of a newly painted wall slowly drying. The big this-is-who-the-ghost-is-and-why-they’re-haunting-us reveal is pure boilerplate. Rebecca’s backstory is either wastefully undeveloped or the film originally ran 20 minutes longer but the producers got cold feet and chopped it out. The performances aren’t much to write home about, either. Palmer, who I liked a hell of a lot in ‘Warm Bodies’, is one-note. Bello isn’t so much hammy as the entire porcine. DiPersia does what he can with what isn’t so much a role as a few dozen words and not much in the way of stage direction. Bateman arguably does the best work.

The real stars of the show, though, are the effects work and sound design that augment Alicia Vela-Bailey’s performance as the ghost; and Marc Spicer’s cinematography, in which every blurred background and every shadowy corner becomes a lurking place for something unspeakable. I haven’t seen a horror movie in quite some time that plays so effectively and so frequently with false scares, goading you into thinking that a door’s about to open or a face appear in a mirror or a figure emerge from the darkness, only for the anticipated payoff not to happen. Thus are the audience kept on tenterhooks. Thus do the actual scares find their target.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Shallows

With the exception of a scene depicting a pick-up truck’s bumpy passage along a dirt track and an epilogue that’s geographically though not thematically removed, ‘The Shallows’ takes place entirely in one location. Picture it: a unspoilt cove somewhere in Mexico, sand stretching out in a white-gold scimitar, sun-dappled waters, a couple of rock formations a few hundred yards out from the beach, and a buoy about 40 yards away from them.

Into this locale, director Jaume Collet-Serra places young American tourist Nancy Adams (Blake Lively). Nancy’s travelled here in tribute to her recently deceased mother, an avid surfer who last visited the beach while pregnant with Nancy. Her father (Brett Cullen) wants her to come home and resume her studies at medical school. Her sister (Sedona Legge) just wants to go surfing with Nancy. All of this is established during a short facetime conversation while Nancy strolls along the beach. Anthony Jaswinski’s script doesn’t waste words.

While surfing, she meets two Mexican guys who ride the waves with her for a while. They advise her, before they head back to the beach, not to stay out too long. She assures them she’ll just catch one more wave. After they leave, and while Nancy is still sitting on her board, ruminatively looking out across the water, a dolphin bursts into the air near her, then dives back in, followed by several others. Enchanted, she paddles after them … at which point her bittersweet odyssey in tribute to her mother comes to an abrupt end.

The dolphins gone, the water suddenly becomes discoloured and Nancy sees the ravaged carcass of a whale floating ahead of her. Disgusted, she starts heading back to shore. Enter shark, which loses no time in knocking her off the surfboard and causing injury to her leg. She clambers onto the carcass, its skin breaking as tries to find a handhold. The shark responds by going at the dead whale in much the same way that wrecking balls go at buildings marked for total reclaim. Nancy swims like all hell for one of the rock formations, pulling herself out of the water milliseconds before becoming an hors d’oeuvre and exacerbating her wound in the process.

This takes us about 25 minutes into an admirably compact 86-minute feature. Strip out the aforementioned (brief) coda and a few minutes of end credits, and ‘The Shallows’ strands us with Nancy for an unremitting 45 minutes as various shark-driven circumstances compel her to navigate, often at great personal risk, between the two rock formations and the buoy. 45 minutes during which Collet-Serra mines Nancy’s plight for every possible drop of tension.

While the focus is on Nancy using her medical skills to self-treat her wounds (there’s a scene of jewellery-assisted suturing which I’m guessing isn’t NICE-approved) and her wits to try to attract attention or manoeuvre herself closer to shore, the film barely puts a foot wrong. The decision to go full-on ‘Jaws’ towards the end, Nancy wielding a Very pistol and barking out anti-squaloid rhetoric like a non-alcoholic version of Quint who looks better in a bikini, makes for some exciting moments and some questionable ones in roughly equal measure. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you the film’s single biggest misstep (it’s a howler) suffice to say that it’s a poorly composited bit of effects work that wouldn’t look out of place – aesthetically and conceptually – in ‘Sharktopus’.

But the moments where ‘The Shallows’ drops the ball add up to so little screen time that they’re almost cheesily forgivable, particularly when the rest of the film coheres as solidly and efficiently as a delivery system for edge-of-the-seat tension.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Suicide Squad

If David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad’ – the latest in DC’s roster of not-quite-there tentpole releases – never fully adds up to the sum of its parts, it’s not for want of trying. Truth be told, it tries to hard. Ayers, his cast and his production designers go for a snarling punk aesthetic … and emerge with J-pop kitsch. The narrative wants to have the desperate urgency of some unholy hybrid of ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Escape from New York’, but ladles on the references to those two classics so heavy-handily that it plods in their footsteps rather than sassily homaging them. And everyone involved wants the audience to take the eponymous mob of villains to their hearts so badly that said mob come across as loveable rather than the edgy anti-heroes of the source material.

“We’re the bad guys,” one of other of them declaims at regular intervals, and believe me the reminders are necessary. During the city-wide battle that occupies the second half of the movie, the most villainous thing that happens is when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) smashes a shop window and steals a handbag. As for the rest of them, Deadshot (Will Smith) sells out to the Establishment so his daughter can get an ivy league education; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a bank robber whom the script doesn’t give much of a shit about; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who has a Prometheus-like way with fire but spends most of the running time wanting to be a pacifist; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s not so much a villain as a genetic cock-up to be kept out of the way of the general citizenship; and one other dude who was in it for about two and a half minutes before getting written out just to prove that the Establishment are bigger bastards than the crims. Subversive, much?

The Establishment are represented by Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), a corrupt guard at the maximum security prison in which our soon-to-be-squad are incarcerated; Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), their handler; and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Flag’s boss and a hardass politico with a covert agenda. Waller is actually the most edgy, dangerous and morality-free character in the ensemble, and you quickly get the impression that she really doesn’t need the Suicide Squad. Just send her out into the streets of Midway City in her business suit, armed with nothing more than some withering put-downs, and most iterations of ancient and unstoppable evil would probably run home crying for their mom.

But still, the script calls for the Squad to mix it up with the aforementioned ancient and unstoppable evil. So please give a big hand, ladies and gentlemen – if only in sympathy for the thanklessness of her role – for The Enchantress, a witch who has possessed the body of archaeologist Dr June Moone (Cara Delevingne). As the film opens, Moone is in a relationship with Flag while Waller keeps the witch’s heart in a briefcase as leverage to keep both Flag and The Enchantress in check. The Enchantress quickly discovers a workaround and engineers a doomsday machine thingie that opens a hole in the sky. That’s about as much exposition as the script offers, by the way. Seriously: the similar extraterrestrial threat to humankind that provides the biggest plot device in ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’ benefits from a more rigorous scientific rationale. Throughout all of this, Delevingne, a likeable actress with, I think, the ability to slough off her supermodel image, is required to do little more than sway hypnotically while a mess of CGI splurges across the screen behind her. The film wastes her almost as egregiously as it does swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Anyway, our cuddly bunch of cutesy misfits … sorry, I mean the Suicide Squad … go into action to stop The Enchantress, close the hole in the sky and exchange banter. A word on the latter. When ‘Deadpool’ proved box office Viagra, the producers of ‘Suicide Squad’ decided their movie also needed to be irreverent and signed off on $10 million’s worth of reshoots to bump up the humour quotient. I laughed about four times during the just-over-two-hours. That’s two and a half mill per giggle. Bit steep, if you ask me.

Credit where it’s due, once Ayer and co. limp past the halfway mark, things begin to cohere and the Squad start behaving in a way that’s not forced. Also, Ayer stops relying on look-at-me directorial flashes and lets his cast do their thing. The action is decent, but much of it is staged as an ongoing battle with The Enchantress’s legion of once-humans, whom she transforms into beings that look like gooseberries gone evil. It’s an aesthetic misstep that damn near undermines the film. You want the Suicide Squad battling against seemingly insurmountable odds – i.e. for the threat to imply the non-squad part of the title – not look like they’re starring in a Ribena commercial.

But even the ’beena-berry business is better than the awfully structure first half, where vignettes introduce us to Deadshot and Harley Quinn in jail, then Waller introduces them all over again – along with the rest of the Squad – to the homeland security types who green-light the project, then Flag is introduced to the Squad, then the Squad are introduced to each other. It’s an inordinate amount of set-up for characters who are never fleshed out beyond a visual quirk and a music cue. Ayer’s reliance on music cues is wearying and sometimes pointless. Waller is introduced to the strains of the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, the lyric “I’m a man of wealth and taste” barely uttered before a black SUV discharges Viola Davis’s decidedly non-masculine form.

If Davis gives the best performance, Smith comes a close second – I’ve not seen him enjoying himself in a role this much in ages. Robbie has a lot of fun with Harley Quinn, but fares less well in the flashbacks as Dr Harleen Quinzel; her dark romance with The Joker (Jared Leto) – the only other character who genuinely seems dangerous – is too sketchily established and consequently never convinces, something not helped by the lack of chemistry between her and Leto. That said, Leto is otherwise effective. With two iconic and very different takes on The Joker already etched into the popular consciousness courtesy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, kudos to Leto for a full-steam-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes piece of characterisation. He doesn’t quite get enough screen time to make the character his own, but I’m eager to see what he does next time round.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Jason Bourne

In one respect, ‘Jason Bourne’ simply offers more of the same: foot chase, bike chase, car chase, hand-to-hand fighting, tradecraft vs technology, big crowd scenes, yet another piece of the Bourne backstory jigsaw slotted into place. And it would be easy – and lazy – to leave an appraisal of the film at that.

The first debate any reviewer of ‘Jason Bourne’ needs to engage in – of more paramount importance, even, that “by Christ, that title’s lousy, why didn’t they just stick a polysyllabic noun after the dude’s name and respect tradition?” – is whether more of the same is necessarily a bad thing.

With only millimetric tweaks to the formula decade on decade, the Bond juggernaut has made enough money at the box office across half a century to buy out Croesus, bankrupt the Sultan of Brunei and play my-bank-account’s-bigger-than-your-bank-account with J.K. Rowling; and done so on more of the same. Harry Potter? More of the same for seven consecutive terms. Horror movie franchises? ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ notched up double-figures and then got rebooted. More of the same.

Yes, ‘Jason Bourne’ deals in precisely the logistically jaw-dropping set pieces, individual vs the system battle of wits, and hyper-kinetically edited action that you’d want – nay demand – from the series; and let’s face it, Paul Greengrass defined the Bourne aesthetic with his first throw of the dice on ‘The Bourne Supremacy’. Technically, ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ was an exercise in more of the same, and it remains the series’s high point.

The second debate is whether, almost a decade on from ‘Ultimatum’ and coming after Tony Gilroy’s formulaic (in a bad way) ‘The Bourne Legacy’, ‘Jason Bourne’ has any contemporary relevance. Or is this just the Matt and Paul nostalgia show? The answer to this one isn’t quite as clear cut.

‘Jason Bourne’ finds our buffed up anti-hero off the grid and dispiritingly reduced to bare-knuckle fighting in sundry European shitholes to earn a living. The decade that’s passed since ‘Ultimatum’ hasn’t been particularly kind to Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), either. She’s ex-CIA, embittered, and working for an Assange-kind reactionary hacker. Her penetration of CIA files pertaining to Treadstone, Blackbriar, Outcome and black ops imperative du jour Ironhand is the spark that ignites the film’s narrative. Not only does she pull down some serious heat on herself – in the former of CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and ruthlessly ambitious Cyber Ops head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) – but uncovers a crucial piece of information regarding Bourne’s recruitment to Treadstone. She makes contact with Bourne and the pair meet in Athens as an anti-government protest explodes into rioting. Into an already volatile situation comes The Asset (Vincent Cassel), under orders from Dewey and with his own agenda vis-à-vis eliminating Bourne.

This is good stuff, as labyrinthine and steeped in conspiracy as any of the previous instalments. Then Greengrass throws into the mix a sub-plot (which swiftly tries to interpose itself as the main plot) about a social media corporation called Deep Dream, run by visionary geek Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) who owes his success to favours and fund money provided by Dewey. Which immediately ties the film to the already tired “hey let’s use IT to spy on everyone in the whole wide world and if necessary assassinate them” narrative of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Spectre’. A decade ago, Bond was playing catch-up with Bourne – it shouldn’t be the other way round.

It would be a cheap shot to describe ‘Jason Bourne’ as Bourne for the Twitter generation – it’s too smart for that; too well-crafted. The Athens sequence, as Bourne tries to extract Nicky from a city in chaos, comes a close second to the Waterloo station set-piece in ‘Ultimatum’ as Greengrass’s defining moment as Bourne director. The Las Vegas set car chase that powers Bourne towards his final confrontation is first class action cinema. Even the “CIA is run by murderous villains” formula gets a new spin with Vikander’s ambivalent character on course for the careerist coup in the final act.

How much more mileage the character has remains to be seen – ‘Jason Bourne’ sows enough seeds to structure at least one more film around – but with Damon still delivering the goods in his signature role and Greengrass’s superb craftsmanship and innate understanding of pace and tension, I’m happy to keep on taking the ride. Just sort the fucking title out next time, though, guys.