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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Bourne Re-encapsulation

Robert Ludlum’s ‘The Bourne Identity’ is an exciting if needlessly overcomplicated espionage novel about an amnesiac assassin trying to recover his memories whilst a shadowy agency manoeuvres him into a showdown with near-mythical hitman Carlos the Jackal. Doug Liman’s film version takes the basic amnesia hook and jettisons everything else. Paul Greengrass’s take on Ludlum’s two sequels ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ retain just the character and title. Tony Gilroy’s ‘The Bourne Legacy’ borrows the title of one of Eric Van Lustbader’s continuation novels but has a completely different main character.

Ludlum was a solid, occasionally inspired, thriller writer who has been particularly ill-served in terms of adaptations: ‘The Osterman Weekend’ is minor Peckinpah, ‘The Holocroft Covenant’ minor Frankenheimer, the handful of TV movies/mini-series have been uninspired, and the Bourne franchise – while generally representing the highest quality of onscreen Ludlum – have very little to do with their source material.

‘Jason Bourne’ – Greengrass’s reteaming with Matt Damon – moves things away from Ludlum even further: the author’s trademark “definite article/name/noun” titling system, which Lustbader had the good grace to preserve, is done away with in favour of perhaps the most insipid title anyone could have saddled the film with. It’s like a making a follow up to ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and calling it ‘George Smiley’.

I’m off to see ‘Jason Bourne’ – or, as I’m already preferring to think of it, ‘The Bourne Reinstatement’ – later today; accordingly, I binged-watched the four preceding films over a 24-hour period as a prelude; and since I’ve not previously reviewed any of them for this blog, here’s a quick-fire appraisal of them: ‘The Bourne Overview’, as it were.

I’d not watched ‘Identity’ in a while and the first thing that struck me is how clunky the computers look in the interminable CIA scenes where everyone spins round from their monitors to import portentous screeds of dialogue while the camera whip-pans over to Chris Cooper as he points and snaps his fingers and barks a lot of gobbledygook that generally begins with the homily “okay, people”. (Granted, David Strathairn says “okay, people” a lot in one of the sequels, so maybe it’s a CIA thing.) The second thing that struck me is how little facility Liman has with action scenes. He’s not bad at foot chases and the mechanics of Bourne evading capture, and there’s a perfectly functional car chase at one point, but the hand-to-hand stuff is so overly-stylised it’s as if Liman were aiming for the balletic intensity of, say, John Woo but only had an episode of ‘Dragonball’ as a point of reference.

What the film does have in its favour is Tony Gilroy’s script, which keeps things moving and pays attention to tradecraft rather than having Bourne’s globetrotting quest for his own identity play out as a Bondian trail of gadgets and destruction. The plot is little more than: Bourne gets amnesia after a failed mission, his bosses think he’s gone rogue, everyone tries to kill each other; however, Gilroy manages to squeeze in a bit of debate on the nature and dehumanisation of what Bourne and his ilk do for a living. It’s there in the human side that he gradually reveals to Marie (Franke Potente), the bystander to whom Bourne appeals for help early on in the narrative, and it’s there in his confrontation with an assassin codenamed The Professor (Clive Owen), a scene which segues from cat-and-mouse tension to a surprisingly rueful character moment.

On balance, while ‘Identity’ is a good but not great film, it’s easy to see why it found a huge and appreciative audience, not least because of Damon’s pared-down performance. Its key appeal, though, is Bourne’s function as an anti-hero; a rebel of sorts. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to call the character a Robin Hood for the surveillance/information age, but he’s definitely a thorn in the establishment’s side, rather than a tool of the establishment a la James Bond.

‘The Bourne Supremacy’ put Greengrass in the director’s chair, upped the ante on the political conspiracy narrative and frankly took the staging of action scenes to a new level. ‘~ Supremacy’ is where Bourne coheres. Strands from the first film – particularly the importance to overarching narrative of junior CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) – are rigorously developed, while Brian Cox takes over from Chris Cooper as a Machiavellian spymaster with a ruthless agenda. Muddying the waters even further, Treadstone – the black ops programme that trained Bourne – is now under investigation by Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). This pressure cooker environment of the CIA dividing into factions and plotting against its own gives the office-based scenes a pulse that Liman tried for but reduced to cliché. There’s a scene, for example, of Landy opening a box, pulling out a file and opening it to find a key piece of information that’s more urgently edited than anything in Liman’s film.

Naturally, these shenanigans define ‘Supremacy’ as a more cynical film; indeed, the first act disposal of Marie is positively mean-spirited even if does give Bourne every reason to take the fight to his former employers. Fight being the operative word. Where the hand-to-hand business was hyper-stylised in ‘Identity’, here it’s down and dirty; Bourne and his antagonists bleed and sport bruises. A joltingly intense car chase in Moscow towards the end of the film sees Bourne hobble away from the carnage with a limp.

Greengrass stages large-scale suspense/cat-and-mouse scenes as brilliantly as he does the action scenes. He has a particular flair for exploding crowds and vast spaces. A sequence where Bourne evades a bunch of CIA operatives as he makes contact with Nicky during demonstration march, trams treading through the bustling mass of protestors, is one of the film’s best moments and points towards a set-piece in ‘Ultimatum’ that is arguably the franchise’s high point to date. He’s damn good with actors, too, as demonstrated by the performances from Damon, Stiles, Cox, Allen and Karl Urban.

As ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ opens, the conspiracy that was revealed at the end of ‘Supremacy’ looks set to cause greater embarrassment to the CIA. Someone in-house has talked to the press about Blackbriar – the black ops imperative that has succeeded Treadstone – and Simon Ross (Paddy Consodine), investigative journalist working for The Guardian, is getting closer and closer to the truth. Another shadowy CIA head honcho type, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who’d rather Landy and Parsons and everybody else connected with Bourne would just shut up and let him get on with his career, and for whom this meddling newsman is the last straw, authorises a hit on Ross on home soil. Cue Bourne’s intervention as he tries to manoeuvre Ross through the crowded environs of Waterloo station under the noses of a surveillance team and a hitman. Greengrass achieves a level of suspense that merits comparison with Hitchcock.

Thwarted in his attempt to contact Ross’s source, Bourne opts for a risky gambit which involves matching wits with Vosen on the latter’s home turf. Along the way, the expected foot chases, car chases and hand-to-hand fights ensue, augmented by a free-running sequence across the rooftops of Tangier. Granted, there’s little in ‘~ Ultimatum’ that hasn’t been done its predecessors, but whereas Greengrass defined the essential Bourne aesthetic in ‘Supremacy’, here he fine tunes it. Consequently, while there’s a sense of the familiar about ‘Ultimatum’, it’s certainly the most satisfying instalment both on a narrative level and as an action thriller. It’s mainstream filmmaking that treats the audience as intelligent and offers a sense of resolution to its protagonist’s journey of self-rediscovery.

Which is more than can be said for ‘The Bourne Legacy’. Gilroy, taking the reins as director, tries to reinvent the franchise with a new character, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), by means of keeping things more or less the same. So instead of having Treadstone or Blackbriar, we have Outcome, a black ops project where operatives are medically enhanced for stamina and intelligence. Instead of amnesiac Bourne, we have chemically dependent Cross. Instead of Marie or Nicky, we have on-the-run scientist Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who joins Cross in his globetrotting. Instead of Cooper, Cox and Strathairn (although the latter puts in a cameo), we have Stacy Keach and Edward Norton as shadowy conspirators.

Granted, Gilroy starts the ball rolling effectively enough, contrasting Cross’s training mission in Alaska with events at the CIA top table as ‘Legacy’ overlaps with ‘Ultimatum’ and everyone involved in quasi-legal black ops work (which seems to be basically the entire CIA) gets cold feet; in particular, Keach and Norton are keen to plug the plug on Outcome because of (a) its operational proximity to Blackbriar and (b) to protect an even more hush-hush project, LARX. Most of the Outcome operatives are taken out quickly in a cynical act of betrayal by their handlers. Cross, still in Alaska, presents a thornier proposition.

In adding another layer to the conspiracy, Gilroy doesn’t so much expand the Bourne mythology – his stated intent – as cheapen it. He cheapens the action, too. His only previous directing credits were talky dramas, and it’s immediately apparent that he’s much happier directing men in suits in offices. Where the action in ‘Legacy’ works, it’s purely because of Renner’s facility in this department. The staging – apart from a decent shoot-out when Cross rescues Marta – is notably poor. The extended motorbike chase that provides the film’s denouement is shot with such little regard for the participants’ spatial location to each other and edited so haphazardly that becomes almost abstract. Moreover, the final act introduction of a LARX supersoldier, coupled with the lack of any real resolution to the story, suggests that Gilroy is trying to establish his own parallel franchise – more of same, with key players from the canon films relegated to cameos. Here’s hoping ‘Jason Bourne’ re-establishes the winning Damon/Greengrass formula and puts a stop to it.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Neon Demon

I remember being in something of a minority regarding Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film ‘Only God Forgives’ – i.e. I liked it. Notwithstanding the welter of bad reviews, I was convinced that Refn had found the most brutal yet visually beautiful way possible of crafting a statement on the brutality and ultimate futility of violence.

At its most striking, ‘The Neon Demon’ is every bit as visually stunning as ‘Only God Forgives’, but that’s all it really deals in: surface sheen. Yes, there’s an argument to be made that the film’s subject – fashion, modelling, and pursuit of success in said milieu at the cost of everything else – demands nothing more than surface sheen. Let’s face it, if you want to satirise the fashion industry, all you’d need to do is point a camera at it and wait for it to become a parody of itself. Which it would do pretty quickly. In fact, you’d barely have time to make a cup of coffee and butter a slice of toast.

Yet ‘The Neon Demon’ always seems to be just a missing scene or another draft of the script away from being something more. The aesthetic ranges from Cronenbergian body horror to a Lynchian exploration of the how the internal landscape is mapped onto the external (or maybe vice versa), while the narrative is a complete mishmash, clearly wanting to evoke classic “rags-to-riches” and “rise-and-fall” stories but mainly chugging along at the level of ‘Showgirls’. If Verhoeven had thrown in necrophilia and cannibalism.

Ah, yes: the contentious stuff. I’d like to think that its inclusion is another indicator of the something else that Refn was striving for – at the very least, the most extreme juxtaposition possible with unnamed but Svengali-esque fashion designer (Allesandro Nivola)’s assertion that “beauty is everything” – but I’m more inclined to believe that it’s simply a reaction to the outrage over ‘Only God Forgives’; a case, in other words, of Refn thinking “okay, you fuckers, this time I’ll give you something to really get offended about”.

The offensiveness-o-meter registers its first blip when small town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning), just 16, orphaned and looking for fame and fortune in the big city, encounters Hank (Keanu Reeves), the manager of the shitty motel she’s lodging at. Hank’s an odious individual from the off; as the film progresses, Hank attempts to pimp out the 13-year old runaway in the next room to Jesse’s wet-leaf boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) – “some real Lolita shit” is how Hank delicately puts it. Later, Jesse ascribes an attempted incursion into her room to Hank, then hears him barging into the minor’s room and a lot of commotion ensuing that sounds decidedly unpleasant. At this point, terrified, she flees the motel and seeks refuge with make-up guru Ruby (Jena Malone).

Ah yes: Ruby. Jesse meets Ruby at one of her early photoshoots and utterly fails to identify her as a predatory lesbian, the single character trait that the script bothers to offer her. As well as seemingly doing every model in LA’s makeup, Ruby moonlights at a mortuary where she prepares cadavers, making them as lifelike as possible for their open coffins. This would have been the film’s best satirical hit, only Refn takes it that bit further … and by “that bit further” I mean straight through the barrier marked “good taste”, all the way down the dead-street signposted “if it was good enough for Jörg Buttgereit, it’s good enough for me” and up in flames as it goes barrelling into the concrete wall spray-painted with “way to go emptying the cinema like that, dude”. Said scene is the most thankless thing modern cinema has ever done with Jena Malone and that includes casting her in ‘Batman vs Superman’ and then consigning her to the cutting room floor. And even then, let’s spare a thought for poor Cody Renee Cameron as the other, uh, participant. Sort of participant. Ahem, moving swiftly on …

It’s also through Ruby that Jesse meets established model Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and aspiring model Sarah (Abbey Lee) – their characterisation runs to sullen with a tendency to bitchiness and sullen with a tendency to self-loathing respectively – and seems apprehensive of them right up to the point where Nivola’s predictably arrogant designer picks her on a whim to be the New Face of Whatever. Granted, Jesse’s transformation from sweet and innocent to not so, played out in a single scene, is the film’s equivalent of the “Club Silencio” sequence from ‘Mulholland Drive’ and lingers in the mind just as effectively.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit that ‘The Neon Demon’ gets right. It’s graced with good performances – Fanning is terrific; Malone, Heathcote and Lee all surpass the thin gruel they’re given to work with; and I haven’t seen Reeves this engaged with a role in ages. Cliff Martinez’s score gives the head-fuck imagery an unnerving aural accompaniment. And speaking of imagery, step forward cinematographer Natasha Braier. A lot of talent and a lot of thought – particularly around the symbolism in Jesse’s hallucinatory scenes – has gone into the production. It’s just that the end result seems so hollow. Had Refn’s go-for-the-jugular approach, rammed home as it is with such exquisite commitment to bad taste, been aimed at a more labyrinthine and multi-layered subject, ‘The Neon Demon’ could have been a visceral and essential work of cinema instead of a vaguely unsatisfying one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ boasts the most formal exercise in structure this side of the work of Iain (M) Banks. Essentially, it comprises six novellas, each in a different genre and written in dramatically different styles, their timelines ranging from 1850 to the dystopian future and a post-apocalyptic society beyond that. The structure is akin to a set of Russian dolls. The first story is told to its half-way point (breaking off mid-sentence), then the first half of the second story commences (containing an echo of its predecessor), and so on and so forth until five stories, incrementally reaching into the future, have been half told. Then the sixth tale – the post-apocalyptic one – is told in full, after which the fifth story is completed, then the fourth, etc. until the reader is returned to 1850 and the cycle is completed, echoes and prefigurations and consequences resounding through time and across continents.

It’s a structure that works beautifully on the page. The grammar of cinema, however, functions very differently. In terms of the written word, perhaps only poetry as an art form can achieve the juxtapositions that cinema is capable of; sure, prose has paragraph breaks and novels are (generally) divided into chapters, but poetry lineates mid-sentence, mid-thought, and set forms such as the villanelle and pantoum use repetition not just to reinforce but to recontextualise, even to subvert. (Incidentally, I’m grateful to Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy for setting me off on this train of thought in his review of Terence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’. Until he’d effected a comparison between poetic form and filmic structure in respect of that movie, I’d been struggling for a point of cohesion in order to write about ‘Cloud Atlas’.)

I’d be fascinated to know whether the script for ‘Cloud Atlas’ was written in the weaving, contrapuntal, slightly undisciplined form that the finished product takes, or whether each sequence was scripted as an individual narrative and the structure, rhythm, pacing and points of connection and intersection were discovered in the editing suite. I really hope the latter, because that allows for moments of “holy shit, we can cut from this to this” or “but what if we have ten solid minutes in this time frame and then – bang! – just half a minute in the next”. Which means that art was created on a feverish high of possibilities and light-bulb-above-the-head epiphanies. And I’d rather have my art created in a cauldron of adrenalin and craziness powered by lightning bolts from the muse. Better that than cool cerebral precision any day.

For the record, cool cerebral precision is a massive bonus if one is creating mainstream product: ‘Yada Yada Yada Generic Tentpole Flick’ will always play better if it’s smartly done and well crafted than if it’s a tired piece of hack work. But if you’re going for broke and bringing to life something bold, visionary, genre-bending, rulebook-shredding and more than a little bit bonkers, then craziness, adrenalin, pinging light-bulbs and zinging bolts of electricity straight from the muse are definitely the way to go.

And there’s no doubt that ‘Cloud Atlas’ is bold and visionary. Bordering on the lunatic, in fact. Pushing three hours, it is packed with famous faces in offbeat roles and it bristles with imagery that walks a tight-rope between the aesthetic (there are individual frames that are as striking and visually beautiful as anything cinema has given us) and the ridiculous, and performances that vacillate between tear-duct-inciting poignancy and a cartoon strip from Viz come to life. ‘Cloud Atlas’ both dares to dream and shrugs its shoulders when it fucks up. A futurist rebellion against a regime that makes Thatcherism look like a teddy bear’s picnic plays off against some shenanigans in a nursing home that come across like ‘Waiting for God’ if directed by Ben Wheatley. A melodrama of art, loyalty and what Bosey called “the love that dare not speak its name” finds an unexpected point of reference in a 70s-set conspiracy thriller. And the furthest point of the narrative, in which humankind is reduced to a cluster of semi-literate warring tribes, contains the crucial detail that ties everything together.

Which isn’t to say that ‘Cloud Atlas’ delivers an “ah-ha!” moment in which everything coheres at a single nexus. Not at all. The film has been confident in its viewer’s intelligence through its long but commendably fleet running time; and it has the confidence not to fall at the final hurdle. It doesn’t so much explain itself to the viewer as give them the opportunity to unpack and consider and return to its treasure-box of themes and ideas and juxtapositions. It invites you into a dialogue with it, and lets you contribute something of yourself. That, for me, is another hallmark of great art.

800 words into this review and I realise that the author of the source novel is the only person I’ve mentioned by name. Not the co-directors, not the actors (many of whom play multiple roles). And I’m not sure that it matters that I haven’t. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is great art – flawed, to a lesser degree, but still great – and better still it’s collaborative art. Collaborative art that, at its most sublime, is a hymn to the individual. A big sloppy work that finds scenes and images of absolute focus. The imperfect almost – almost – achieving perfection.