Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Simple Favour

Imagine somebody wrote a fairly lackadaisical beach novel full of murder, mystery, red herrings, improbable plot twists and purple prose. Imagine that said novel got optioned and ended up in the hands of a director known chiefly for ham-fisted Melissa McCarthy vehicles. Imagine that said director decided the best way to adapt said novel was via a cross-pollination of Hitchcockian tropes and trés trés chic 1960s Euro-cinema surface gloss – and, as if that wasn’t glossy enough, said director dipped the whole thing into the day-glo ‘Stepford Wives’ paintbox until the fumes almost overcame it.

Sounds like a recipe for what you’d get if disaster and chaos hatefucked and had a kid they gave up for adoption because it made Damien look like the baby Jesus, right?

Sounds like the filmic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, a dentist’s drill and the collected works of Justin Bieber mixed together and projected through a Hadron collider, right?

Because that’s sure what it sounded like to me.

So I went along and took in a screening and –

Now, jes’ hold up, Mr Fancy Pants Movie Critic. Why’n the name of Elvis’s bath salts would you go along and see a movie that you’d already made up your mind was a piece of ess aitch one tee?

Anna Kendrick. Any more questions, or can I continue with this review.

Uh, sure thing. Meant no disrespect, son.

None taken. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Owing to the fact that Anna Kendrick – who I’m slightly in love with based on her Twitter feed alone – was in it, I went along and took in a screening. Obvs, it didn’t hurt that Blake Lively was also in it. Granted, there was a time when Blake Lively’s presence in a movie would have elicited a “ho hum” from me at best, after which I’d have interrogated my local multiplex’s website for something starring Amy Adams or Emily Blunt instead, but that was before I saw ‘The Shallows’. Post-‘The Shallows’, I accepted the Gospel According to Blake Lively and lo I have repented of my erstwhile transgressions.

Uh, Mr Fancy Pants Movie Critic, you know that your wife reads this blog, right? You might wanna, y’know, critique the movie. Either that or, I dunno, maybe the doghouse is cosy enough for ya.

Um. Yeah. Good call, friend. Right. So. ‘A Simple Favour’, directed by Paul Feig, kicks off with a slick, half-cool-half-camp opening credits sequence that feels like you should be watching something starring Marcello Mastroianni and Elke Sommer; what it gives onto, instead, is a simpering to-camera piece by Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick), the kind of perpetually perky helpful-hints-and-tips mommy blogger (oh, sorry, vlogger) that you’d normally run a mile to avoid. Indeed, most of her fellow single-or-otherwise moms in the relatively privileged surburban enclave she can just afford to live in thanks to her dead husband’s life insurance payoff subscribe to her vlog solely to mock her.

Only Stephanie’s vlog is going through the roof in terms of subscribers and it’s not because of her cookie recipes or handy life hacks. Nope, it’s because her bite-sized updates on the disappearance of BFF Emily (Lively) are capturing the public’s imagination. Emily is everything Stephanie’s always wanted to be – stylish, daring, enigmatic and possessed of a husband who isn’t six feet under – and it doesn’t really matter if they’ve only known each other a few weeks or that Emily basically treats Stephanie like an unpaid servant as well as manipulating her as elegantly as, say, Alfred Brendel playing a Schubert piano sonata; Stephanie finally has a friend and her social horizons have expanded beyond the claustrophic, mutually needy, not-far-off-‘The-Babadook’ relationship she has with her son.

But as good as it is having a stylish and sexy friend, it’s so much better having a stylish, sexy missing friend. It means Stephanie gets to be the centre of attention for once. Gets to bone Emily’s grief-stricken husband (Henry Golding). Gets to usurp her place in her stylish, sexy, architecture-porn multi-bedroom house. And it’s all fun and (bedroom) games until she takes her wannabe Nancy Drew role a bit too seriously and starts finding things out about Emily that …

Well, we’d be lurching into spoiler territory if we went any further down that route and ‘A Simple Favour’ is a film best approached with no preconceptions or foreknowledge. That way, the jaw-droppingly cynical and politically incorrect humour will wallop you all the more concussively; the acidic takedown of genre tropes will hit all the harder; the performances will zing all the zingier (all addition to the above mentioned triumvirate, Rupert Friend as bitchy fashion designer, Jean Smart as an alcoholic matriarch and – especially – Linda Cardinelli as an edgy artist all deliver knockout turns); and the film’s sheer unadulterated joy in wallowing in the most venal of (in)human traits will wash over you all the more blissfully. If mean-spiritedness were a bath ballistic, Lush would market it under licence to this movie.

‘A Simple Favour’ sets up the traditions and expectations of a well-worn genre and ruthlessly rips the piss. It glories in shifting audience sympathies between different characters only to reveal all of them as shitbags of the highest order. It has no moral compass and invites you to find that particular fact utterly hilarious. It’s a hymn to its leading ladies and a black valentine to mainstream sensibilities. It’s nasty and sassy; good unclean fun. It has its cake, eats it, cock-teases the waiter and then fucks off without paying the bill.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

King of Thieves

Brits love crims almost as much as they love the Royal Family. The cultural imprimaturs of British cinema are crime movies, from ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ to ‘Get Carter’ to Guy Ritchie and his uniquely UK spin on the slick American mainstream, just as the idols of many a Daily Mail reader or Spanish-settler ex-pat are the Great Train Robbers, the Krays and the Brinks Mat crew. The revelation, then, that the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit robbery had been the work of a group of old geezers captured the public imagination to the tune of two movies – this one and Ronnie Thompson’s ‘The Hatton Garden Job’ – and a TV mini-series in the three years since the heist took place.

There’s a wealth of reading online and at least two non-fiction books on the subject for anyone who wants background on the actual event and some idea of how accurate – or otherwise – ‘King of Thieves’ is. For purposes of this review, the basics are: during the Easter bank holiday in 2015, while the safety deposit premises were closed for four days and nearby businesses that would otherwise have been open were evacuated due to a London Underground fire (unconnected to the robbery and not even mentioned in the film), a group of OAP crims gained access to the building via a keyholder known only as ‘Basil’, disabled the alarm system, drilled through several feet of concrete, entered the vault and robbed the shit of it. All were old-school villains, all had form, and though the heist itself was planned and pulled off brilliantly, it wasn’t long before they were rounded up – with the exception (at the time, anyway) of Basil* – and charged.

‘King of Thieves’ tackles the story in classic three-act structure: the planning, the job itself and the thieves-fall-out aftermath/police investigation. Giving the project to Marsh should have been a shoe-in to direct: his two best films – ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ and ‘Man on Wire’ – are documentary features and ‘King of Thieves’ rounds out a trilogy of best-on-a-true-story features, following ‘The Theory of Everything’ and ‘The Mercy’, biopics of Stephen Hawking and Donald Crowhurst respectively. Loading it with Brit screen legends Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent should have sealed the deal. (Having said all that, ‘The Theory of Everything’ was bland, middlebrow Oscar-bait while ‘The Mercy’ egregiously dropped the ball on what could have been a fucking great movie.)

The film comes freighted, however, with three immediate problems – the first of which is Caine. Not only does he drift through the running time looking bored and delivering his lines with flat indifference, but his infinitely more engaged turn in the thematically similar ‘Going in Style’ – released only 18 months ago – provokes memories of how much fun this kind of material can be if handled well. Watching ‘King of Thieves’ while thinking about ‘Going in Style’, and God knows ‘Going in Style’ was no classic to begin with, just points up how lifeless Marsh’s film is.

That ‘Going in Style’ works is because Zach Braff knows exactly the balance of comedy and whimsy required to elevate the production beyond mere boilerplate. Which brings us to problem the second: ‘King of Thieves’ struggles to find a tone. The opening scenes have old-school thief Brian Reader (Caine) enjoying his seemingly legit twilight years with his adoring wife Lyn (a sparkling Francesca Annis) only for her declining health to leave him a widower. At the wake, some old faces from the past reminisce about the jobs they did, much to Brian’s chagrin. But when Basil (Charlie Cox) turns up at Brian’s morbidly silent house, drags him out for a pint, and pitches Hatton Garden to him it’s not long before he’s put an OAP team together and they’re planning the job in earnest. We’re about quarter of an hour in at this point and Marsh has gone from a jazzy opening credits sequence which promises a proper good old caper movie to a melancholy discourse on bereavement to ‘The Bank Job’ meets ‘Dad’s Army’. Further tonal disharmony awaits: the film’s attempts at comedy are skin-crawlingly embarrassing (someone should have told scripter Joe Penhall that there’s nothing inherently funny about crims in their 70s making homophobic comments and complaining about their bowels); the comedy abruptly dies when Terry Perkins (Broadbent) takes over the job after Brian backs out and discovers that with assumed power comes great paranoia (Broadbent’s authentically terrifying performance of an unpredictable man of violence going even further off the rails is easily the best thing the film has to offer); and the subsequent police investigation shifts the tone to documentary-style procedural. Indeed, this sees ‘King of Thieves’ at its most cohesive, Marsh finally engaging with the material and achieving a pace and style of filmmaking that works. It is, unfortunately, a case of too little too late.

Problem the third: visually, it’s fucking boring. Much of it is filmed in medium-close up, compositions are awkward and ugly (look out for an incredibly shoddy sequence where Basil can’t make eye contact with Brian while he sounds him out about the job), and there are precious few directorial grace notes to enliven the narrative. On paper, ‘King of Thieves’ should have been a cinematographer’s dream: dingy backstreet pubs, smelting plants, scrapyards, lift shafts, vaults, London by night. What’s on the screen, however, is flat and uninspired.

Performances are variable: Broadbent, as noted, delivers a powerhouse turn that you’d never have imagined of him, while Caine doesn’t seem interested. Winstone does the same old shtick, Gambon chews the scenery like a starving man given an unlimited budget in a steakhouse, Cox tries for enigmatic and misses by a mile and a half, Courtney bumbles about like it’s a mummers’ play, and Paul Whitehouse is wasted in a role that he really commits to but is terminally underwritten.

I’m not sure whether it’s Penhall’s script or Marsh’s direction that ultimately scuppers ‘King of Thieves’, or whether it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. Certainly, the film is riddled with moments that seem to strive towards meaning but are never really expanded on, mostly notably in the police’s initial belief that foreign criminals were behind the robbery. This is immediately echoed by a heavy-handed to-camera piece by a reporter speculating on the involvement of a foreign mob because the professional execution, cheer chutzpah and jaw-dropping haul (anywhere between £14 million and £200 million) is thought to be beyond the capabilities of any British outfit.

The Hatton Garden job took place a year before the Brexit referendum; ‘King of Thieves’ is in cinemas six months ahead of the prospective 29 March 2019 date for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It’s obvious that Penhall and Marsh have a point to make, but it’s vague, ill-defined, swamped by tedious scenes of crims with rent-a-Cockney accents saying “faak” and “cahnt” a lot and making shit gay-bashing jokes like they’re in some horrible 70s sitcom.

Towards the end, Marsh cuts between his aged protagonists facing the weight of the law and their younger selves – i.e. matching up each actor with a brief shot of them in a tough guy role from earlier in their filmography – presumably in an attempt at a Peckinpah-lite commentary on men outliving their times but, once again, not quite getting it right. Caine’s archive footage is, of course, from ‘The Italian Job’, Courtenay’s from ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. The effect is twofold: to reinforce the sense of ‘King of Thieves’ as a more-or-less contemporarily-set film hopelessly stuck in the past, and to make you wish you’d stayed at home and watched ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ instead.

*An end-credits title card announces that ‘Basil’ is still at large, however Ian Seed was arrested in March on suspicion of, well, basically being Basil and his trial has been postponed until next year to “allow the defence more time to construct their case because of the problems that may arise from the film’s release” (The Telegraph, 03.09.18).