Sunday, 30 July 2017

Mission: Imposspielberg, Vol. 8 - Passports and Tripods

Like John Ford with John Wayne, or Bobby De Niro with Marty Scorsese, certain directors find a muse and go back to him time and again.  Sometimes it’s that he’s a chameleon and right for the part (De Niro), and sometimes it’s just all he can do (John Wayne).  Sometimes, for example the case of Alfred Hitchcock, he just picked whoever was the most popular at the time.  A prolific period for Spielberg, he hollowed the successful Minority Report by teaming up with two of the world’s biggest stars in Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio to make Catch Me If You Can.

Part jaunty caper, part touching family story, it follows the life of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio) and the FBI agent charged with bringing him in (Hanks) and it’s easily one of the best of his late career films.  Without incongruous shifts in tone Spielberg manages to move between the funny, light moments where DiCaprio learns his trade and Hanks’ stuffy agent fails to stop him, and heartfelt moments between Abagnale and his father.  Played with Herculean pathos by Christopher Walken, their relationship is the heart of the film and it would take a hard heart not to be moved by him.

With a cool 60s setting which is never overbearing or cheesy, there are some brilliant images throughout: the camera follows the drawn guns of FBI agents back and forward; a tornado of money spills from a suitcase; Abagnale walks a seemingly endless airport corridor towards the camera.  The contrasting setting of Frank’s illicit hotel lifestyle, his family’s tiny flat, and the chaotic FBI offices keeps things interesting, and seeing the minutiae of Abagnale’s fledgling cheque fraud is a guilty pleasure. DiCaprio cements his post-Titanic determination to avoid shit rom coms with a fine performance, and Hanks plays against type, avoiding the affable everyman shtick that’s made his career.  The real star is Walken, whose doomed determination and “Where are you headed, Frank?” exit from the film are enough to make tears happen to grown men.

He followed this up with a relatively minor ($60m budget) film in 2004’s The Terminal.  Reunited with Hanks for a third outing, this is one of his stranger films.  Loosely based on the real story of an Iranian refugee who spent 18 years living in the departure lounge of Charles De Gaulle Airport, The Terminal restores Hanks to everyman duties (although an everyman from a fictional Eastern European state) as Victor Navorski.  Stranded in the eponymous airport terminal (an impressive set), the film follows his efforts to leave and see New York for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.  During his stay he selflessly helps the airport workers with their lives and attempts to woo Catherine Zeta Jones’ lovelorn flight attendant.

It’s an oddly non-narrative film, more episodic than the usual Spielberg output; light and comedic in tone, and full of his trademark gracenotes.  It is also occasionally very heavy handed, with Zeta Jones trying manfully to breathe life into a kind-of love interest role, and Stanley Tucci making a one-dimensional bureaucrat villain a wee bit more interesting. Her role is a shade too obvious; the Napoleon anecdotes not doing enough to hide a flighty (pun intended), I’m-too-much-of-a-mess-for-a-nice-guy-like-you cliché.  His is better; while solely there to offer dramatic tension, in the hands of a lesser actor we could be in panto territory.  John Williams’ scores seem to become more and more obtrusive as time goes on, and The Terminal suffers because of it.  There are some overblown scenes here and there, and Spielberg simply can’t resist a mushy ending; Barry Henley’s security chief handing Hanks a coat rather than handcuffs is too implausible to really be sweet.

I’m quite the fan of single-location films; from the sweaty confines of the jury room in 12 Angry Men to Die Hard’s iconic Nakatomi Tower, I love a film that establishes a sense of place and space.  What The Terminal does well is create a world for Navorski to inhabit; it feels like a genuine place, and this helps the sketched out supporting characters seem a bit more real.

Kudos to Spielberg for trying something new; it’s better than his last attempt at a romantic comedy (Always) and scores extra points for not being actually that romantic.  It loses points, however, for Spielberg’s inability to resist a happy ending, and every part from where Novorski moves to leave the terminal feels kind of false.  It’s a shame, because there is a lot to like in what went before.  Still not sure about Hanks’ accent, though.

Having made his name early on with films about benevolent aliens, Spielberg’s decision to adapt H.G Wells’ War Of The Worlds might have been done with a wink towards the audience.  The result, however, is bereft of irony.  Full of carnage and whipping by at a pace that Tom Cruise himself would struggle to run away from, War Of The Worlds is by turns exhilarating, bleak, exciting, unsatisfying and maddeningly slight.

Reunited with Tom Cruise (an underrated actor IMHO), who remains impressively unheroic throughout, Spielberg sketches out a decent broken family dynamic before the action begins. This adds some peril to the proceedings, although Cruise’s surly emo dick of a son (Justin Chatwin) and air raid siren daughter (Dakota Fanning) occasionally make you root for the aliens.  The plot amounts to running away and surviving through a series of increasingly desperate situations, with only elements taken from the original novel.  Dramatically-speaking, none of this would work if it was just Cruise doing his running thing (see this year’s The Mummy for evidence of that), but the addition of his kids puts something at stake.

The structure makes the film feel disjointed: they run away from a plane crash, then a ferry crash, then a battle, then a crazy man’s (Tim Robbins’ Ogilvy, one of the highlights of the book, reduced to tin foil hat and crazy eyes here but given a nicely dark ending) basement.  Admittedly, it’s a blessed relief when Chatwin’s character buggers off to join the battle and apparently die, but not really explained other than in the scene immediately preceding it.  After the suitably tense Ogilvy sequence, we move into the nightmarish Red Weed scene and after an alien tripod is downed by some nifty hand grenade action, the film kind of just lurches to an end as the aliens get sick and die.  This is, after all, how it happened in the book but Tom Cruise explaining to a marine that their shields were down feels like a cheap concession to star power.

I loved War Of The Worlds when I first saw it, but reviewed now it feels rushed, disjointed, and has a hugely unsatisfying finale.  Not his worst but far from his best.  There are some suitably horrific scenes: the opening alien attack is an impressive adrenaline rush; the bodies-floating-downstream part is suitably horrific; and the scenes where people are scarier than aliens are the best ones.  And yes, to address the elephant in the room.  Personally, I don’t think one bad element can tarnish a whole film: Batman’s voice does not spoil The Dark Knight; the rubber shark didn’t ruin Jaws; and the presence of Cruise’s son, alive and well at the end does not ruin War Of The Worlds.  It’s cheap, it’s an unnecessary piece of sentiment, and it’s something that is sadly now associated with Spielberg.  After such a strong ending to Catch Me If You Can, it’s such a shame that he did this.  But did it ruin the film? No, there were enough problems with what went before to call it ruined.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Film Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s last two films not to feature a masked man with some serious parent issues have both been difficult.  I mean that in a good way; I am a fan of both Inception and Interstellar but both are long, bursting with ideas, and heavy on exposition.  Following a bit of success and granted some freedom by grateful studios, directors who do too much of this type of thing have a tendency to vanish up their own arses: for proof, see anything the Wachowskis have churned out since The Matrix (including the sequels), and anything Richard Kelly has done since Donnie Darko. Nolan has thankfully grounded his grandiose sci-fi forays in a Spielbergian connection to family and not allowed the CGI machine to sully his vision.  So how does he follow up a film in which Matthew McConaughey bent the known laws of space-time? He rescues soldiers from a beach.

Dunkirk tells a familiar and simple story: overwhelmed by the German army in 1940, 400,000 British troops are stranded on the eponymous beach awaiting rescue from a navy vulnerable to U-Boat attacks, and facing annihilation from German bombers and artillery.  The solution: hundreds of civilian boats sail the channel to rescue over 330,000 men.  A military disaster turned into a human triumph.

But that would be too simple a story for the man who made the thriller-in-reverse Memento or showed us dreams within dreams in Inception.  Showing us the story from three perspectives (soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beach, a boat crossing the Channel, an RAF spitfire squadron), each occurring over different but converging time periods, Nolan shuffles his deck in a manner which results in one of the most tense experiences I’ve had in a cinema.

From the opening scene in which soldiers wandering the abandoned Dunkirk streets are fired upon by an unseen enemy, the viewer’s guts are rarely less than wrenched.  Wisely casting actors rather than stars (no room for DiCaprio, McConaughey, or Bale here) in key roles, Nolan at no time gives you certainty of anyone’s survival.  Even Tom Hardy’s stoic fighter pilot has moments of dread.  The ensemble cast is excellent: Hardy is more reserved than we’re used to, Mark Rylance continues his excellent form, Fionn Whitehead and, yes, Harry Styles are effective as the soldiers, terrified and then plagued with survivor guilt. And who could be better cast as officer class than James D’Arcy and Kenneth Brannagh, the latter giving his best stiff upper lip.

What Nolan does really well is fill each segment with pockets of suspense and then flit between them before anything is resolved.  Mark Rylance is the picture of quiet dignity (until the heart stopping moment when he raises his voice) as a civilian boat captain doing his part, but his rescue of Cillian Murphy’s unpredictable, shell shocked soldier causes tension.  Tom Hardy’s fuel gauge is damaged, leaving him (and us) guessing at how much flight time he has left for almost the whole film.  We find out early on that there is a U-Boat in the water, meaning nobody at sea is safe.  A squad decides to wait for high tide in an abandoned fishing boat; a solid strategy until German troops decide to use it for target practice, leaving a choice between being shot and drowned.  Every part of the film is designed to crank up the tension.

Probably the most effective tool in Nolan’s arsenal is Hans Zimmer’s score.  From the recurring ticking clock motif, jagged Bernard Hermann-like violins, to lengthy drone sounds, ascending in tone, it is designed to ensure that nails are bitten.  As one might expect, the film looks incredible. With Nolan admirably preferring to do things in-camera rather than rely on CGI, every bomb impact, bullet, dogfight, and sinking ship is real and visceral.  And while it may seem churlish to comment on a film’s running time, Dunkirk clocks in at a relatively nippy hour and 46 minutes, meaning there is no waste, no lulls, and nothing superfluous.

For a director who has for some time dabbled in the cerebral side of cinema, here he is as thrilling and emotive as a younger Spielberg (think the opening of Saving Private Ryan stretched to feature length, or Duel with added boats and bravery).  There are no Big Ideas on display here, just pure, edge-of-your-seat entertainment which makes the final denouement, returning soldiers feeling like failures but greeted like heroes, all the more rewarding.  That it plays out to Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech is on the nose but plays beautifully.  Victory from the jaws of defeat.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Film Review: Transformers - The Last Knight

I’m not a fan of the three Transformers films I’d already seen so please bear in mind that I went to see this purely out of boredom and with low expectations.  I had decided on a trip to the pictures and the only other alternative available to me at the time was the new Pirates Of The Caribbean. Disclaimer aside, I can now get on with telling you how utterly appalling The Last Knight really is.

There’s a scene in the ‘Imaginationland’ episode of South Park where the military call on film directors for ideas on how to resolve a crisis.  Michael Bay comes in and describes an endless stream of explosions before being stopped and told “they aren’t ideas, they’re special effects.”  Bay responded by saying that he didn’t know the difference.  While South Park is never anything but on the nose, it seems that Bay took it as advice rather than satire.

It may seem churlish to complain that a film about shapeshifting alien robots doesn’t make sense, but the least we can expect is narrative cohesion.  It doesn’t help that almost every line of dialogue is shouted but the plot is so convoluted with scene after scene of exposition, most of which falls to a just-here-for-the-money Anthony Hopkins.  It’s also unhelpful that the one remotely interesting character, Isabella Moner’s orphan mechanic Izabella is jettisoned mid way through and for vague reasons. Laura Haddock tries admirably with an utterly knuckle-headed role as an Oxford professor of just about everything and direct descendant of the wizard Merlin (no, really).  Hopkins, as some kind of Earl, aims for eccentric but lands somewhere between irritating and embarrassing, matched only by his horrific Transformer butler, Cogman.

The supporting cast, which includes the slumming-it likes of Rebecca Front, Stanley Tucci, Glenn Morshower, John Turturro and Tony Hale, and the found-his-level Josh Duhamel, do their best not to look ashamed of their career choices and the Transformer voices are as appallingly portentous or irritating-as-thrush as they always were.

The plot, as much as I understand it, is a mix of Arthurian legend and Cybertron-induced apocalypse.  Mark Whalberg’s shouty hero finds a MacGuffin which only he can use and this leads him and Haddock to find another MacGuffin, which apparently has some kind of vaguely described power which only she can use.  Meanwhile a dying Cybertron is advancing on Earth to steal all of our solar panels (not really, but it might as well be).  There is also something involving a secret society who protect the secret history of Transformers on earth.  Named ‘Witwiccans’ (no, really), their number included the likes of Shakespeare, Stephen Hawking, and yes, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky (I’m not making this up) who mercifully does not appear.

Yes, the visual effects are impressive, but the best CGI-heavy films are the ones which know when and where to use it, and that doesn’t mean ‘always’.  Bay marshals his action like an ADD child, making it near impossible to work out what’s going on at any given time, and this makes the large-scale destruction and robot-on-robot fights un-dramatic and without thrill.

I had previously thought that Guy Richie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword would be the worst film of the year to feature knights of the round table but I was sadly mistaken.  Overall, The Last Knight  was much like watching one of my migraines play out on screen: an unending array of confusing colours, bright lights and pain, but it went on for much longer and wasn’t as much fun.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Gig Review: Monster Magnet, Newcastle Riverside, 22/05/17

When I was a kid, I used to buy a lot of albums on little more than whims and recommendations.  Artists as diverse as Deicide, Nine Inch Nails, Strapping Young Lad all entered the collection during my largely girlfriend-free teenage years.  I still do, but these days it’s much easier to find out if you like someone before you buy (thanks a bunch, Internet! Taking all of mystery out of life…), but back in 1995 you had to have some faith that your pocket money wasn’t going to waste on something shit.

Add to that list the name Monster Magnet, whose 1995 album Dopes To Infinity was a whim purchase gone very very right, and in the ensuing 22 years I never managed to see them play live.  Apparently 20 years since their last visit to this postcode, the announcement of this show was a bit on the special side.  It’s probably fair to say their output hadn’t exactly been exceptional of late, with God Says No, Monolithic Baby, 4 Way Diabolo and Mastermind not living up to the high bar set by their seminal first 4 albums.  And I hadn’t even realised that 2013’s Last Patrol even existed until I sat down to write this article, so it’s entirely possible that this would be a once-beloved band trading on former glories, much like the sad sight of Everclear being terrible a few years back.

I had no reason to worry, because this turned out to be one of those moments of rock perfection; where every note is clear as a bell, the setlist is perfect and the band is entertaining as hell.  An appropriate phrase, since Monster Magnet were once described in the press as Hell’s own house band.  Easy to see why when the Dace Wyndorf and co. casually toss out a set full of classics. From opener ‘Dopes To Infinity’ to ubiquitous closer ‘Space Lord’ there are grooves the size of mars and riffs so filthy they’d make The MC5 seem prudish.  The laid-back fuzz-fest of ‘Look To Your Orb For The Warning’ rubs shoulders with the spiky ‘I Want More’.  A particular highlight is the middle finger salute that accompanies the “I’m never gonna work another day in my life…” chorus to ‘Powertrip’, sounding as fresh and fun today as it did in 1997.

Naturally, the star of the show is Wyndorf.  In fine voice today, he looks like Dave Grohl would if he took a bunch of drugs and joined a biker gang, but performs with Iggy Pop-like malleable limbs.  Only occasionally playing his guitar, he doesn’t just sing, he performs; gyrating and reaching out to the crowd, pointing at the front row and using the word ‘baby’ like most people use commas.  He is an absolute rock star, the kind they just don’t make any more: equal parts dirty punk, and druggy stadium rock.

The set covers all the best parts of their career, taking in ‘Radiation Day’, ‘Dinosaur Vacuum’, and an epic ‘Spine Of God’.  Naturally, we get ‘Negasonic Teenage Warhead’, a song so cool Marvel named a character after it and ‘Tractor’ before they sign off, playing that riff while Wyndorf preaches the joy of saying “motherfucker” as they kick into the hip-shaker that is ‘Space Lord’.  They’re unlikely to gain any new fans at this stage, which is a shame, given the dearth of talent out there today, but for those of us who were lucky enough to be paying attention at the time, this was a proper rock show by a proper rock band. Long may they continue.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Film Review: Alien Covenant

Expectations can be a dangerous thing.  Not nearly as dangerous as a vicious, acid-blooded alien; more how much or how little we enjoy the carnage they create.  Ridley Scott’s first overt return to a universe he created way back in 1979 was always going to weighted down with more expectation than the previous cargo of the Nostromo, so an objective review is tricky. 

2012’s unspoken prequel Prometheus was, for me, a partially missed opportunity; good, but often dull and frustrating.  Where Scott could have filled in the many gaps surrounding the Xenomorphs’ origins, he chose to spin a solid creator myth about humanity finding its origins at the hands of a mysterious ‘Engineer’ species.  While full of great ideas, Scott hit you over the head with them rather than weave them into the production design as he did with Alien or Blade Runner.  Meeting one’s maker etc. etc. It used X Files-like black goo rather than giving fans the facehugger action they craved.  It also suffered from a chronic lack of memorable characters, shamefully underusing a cast including Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce.  Only Fassbender’s synthetic David came away with much credit, despite ending the film with no body.

And on the other hand, fair play to Scott for making the film he wanted and fleshing out his creation with some philosophy rather than just flesh.  Having seen Alien: Covenant, it seems he knew what he was doing.  Chess pieces in place, he now makes his play for the queen.

Covenant gives franchise fans exactly what they want to see.  While this is hugely satisfying in places (origins of the aliens’ eggs revealed, black ooze explained, callbacks galore), it can also make things kind of predictable.  When Fassbender’s restored David is explaining his genetic chicanery to Billy Crudup’s weak captain Oram, you can see the eggs coming from a mile away.  You just know that an alien is going to make it back onto the ship after they escape. And oh, the identity-swap fun you can have with two identical characters.  The ending’s horrific reveal is ace, but I’m sorry to say I saw it coming.  Other callbacks are just subtle enough to be satisfying: the female lead pilots heavy machinery to defeat an alien; there’s a quarantine quandary; somebody gets acid in their face; you just can’t trust a synthetic; and the whole plot it kicked off by a distress beacon.  For an Alien fan, there is an awful lot to like.

It also suffers from the same problems as Prometheus in that, Fassbender aside, none of the cast do enough to make us like them, or invest in them enough to care when they die.  A decent, if less-stellar-than-Prometheus cast is full of space mission standards (pilot, engineer, captain, biologist) but swollen to the point where, once the killing starts, you really aren’t sure who is being offed and where they fit in.  Scott nailed this in Alien by having only 7 crew (plus cat), all staffed by decent character actors (Skerrit, Weaver, Hurt, Holm, Stanton, Kotto and Cartwright) who gave you just enough about them to give a fuck.  Likewise, James Cameron gave us hints at existing character relationships before killing most of his cast in the first 20 minutes or so, leaving memorable personalities for us to invest in (Weaver, Biehn, Henriksen, Hope, Goldstein, Paxton).  While Covenant uses a great idea to up the peril (colonists, selected as married couples rather than just selfish archetypes; when somebody dies, it’s a person’s husband rather than just ‘the doctor’), there are simply too many of them to invest in.  The great idea is squandered when there’s no emotional fallout.  Danny McBride (less annoying than usual) and Crudup try manfully but just aren’t given enough to do.

Which brings us to the franchise’s biggest non-alien selling point: the female lead.  Always flying in the face of Hollywood patriarchy, Alien films have always done well with a non-sexualised woman in the driving seat.  The Sigourney Weaver’s peerless Ellen Ripley was by turns vulnerable, tough, and deadlier than a phased plasma rifle.  Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw had her moments but spent too much time looking troubled to be interesting.  Here, Katherine Waterston is a disappointment; quickly shifting from grieving to worrying to using a radio to swearing at an alien, she never really nails her character and I couldn’t help but wonder what somebody like Alicia Vikander, Jessica Chastain, or Marion Cotillard would have done with her.

One further gripe about Covenant is the standard of the visual effects.  Scott has always been a master visual stylist; from the endless industrial city of Blade Runner, to The Martian’s red wilderness, and Covenant is no different.  The Engineers’ home city is a Pompeii-inspired nightmare; the colony ship Covenant is different enough from the grinding functionality of the Nostromo; David’s hobby of amateur genetics is suitably horrible and rendered effectively in hideous drawings.  But the aliens themselves are a shambles.  Once a terrifying non-presence, rendered by models and practical effects, they are now products of an infinite CGI sandbox and all the worse for it.  The pale, scuttling Neomorph is well designed but poorly rendered and I almost laughed out loud when the freshly chestbursted Xenomorph stood to greet its creator.  Must do better.

All that said, Covenant is often very entertaining: it whips by at a good pace, gives good gore, provides many answers to Prometheus’ questions, and has an absolute fiend of a villain (not the one you think) whose distaste for humanity feels justified and earned.  The ending, while I saw it coming, was pleasingly horrible, leaving the survivors dangling over an awful void.  Just what horror should do; you can almost see the evil glint in Ridley Scott’s eye.  It has some acid-hewn flaws, but it’s also a fine Lovecraftian horror, taking several cues from ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’, and paving the way for more.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Geriaction: drawing pensions and drawing blood, from Taken to Logan

It’s a bafflingly popular action sub-genre right now, and one made popular by an actor who apparently doesn’t care much for action films.  Insufferable portmanteau term ‘Geriaction’ is now the name given to action films featuring older actors.  For modern action, one would expect to see Chrises Pratt, Evans, or Hemsworth, currently in their prime, jumping off buildings and shooting terrorists. But with the action genre currently dominated by superhero adaptations, the non-lycra action fix can be found in the pension queue.

The 1980s saw a distinctly Reaganite movement in action cinema: the exaggerated figures of Stallone and Schwarzenegger as one man armies, defending America from people who were not American.  Hyper-masculine, no emotion, just the mission; individualism writ large. In bullet holes on a wall.  Fast forward to the mid 1990s and the smaller frames of Keanu Reeves (Speed), Nicholas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off), and Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible) were holding their own alongside their exaggerated contemporaries with increasingly bonkers high concept films.  One of the best examples of 90s action (despite my unreserved dislike of the director) was Michael Bay’s The Rock.  The gimmick? Sean Connery as an old action hero (and possibly still James Bond…) who saves the day for the younger guy.

Cut to years later and Stallone makes another Rocky sequel, and it’s not bad at all, banishing the memory of Rocky V.  He then makes Rambo (2008), and then The Expendables (2010).  A passion project, made with tongue edging towards cheek, he assembled the likes of Dolph Lundgren, Micky Rourke, and eventually Schwarzenegger, Norris and Willis, to feature alongside contemporary stars like Jason Statham and Jet Li. Despite some of the worst character names in living memory, and not actually being very good, it’s a massive hit and yields two sequels (and counting, apparently).

At the subtler end of the scale, Harry Brown saw Michael Caine not even attempt to roll back the years, but take out a gang of vicious charvers. This followed Clint Eastwood fine 2008 fable Gran Torino, in which a jaded old man learns to respect another culture and defeats wrong ‘uns as victim rather than victor.  Both films focused on the character and environment rather than how to apply a chokehold or torture a henchman (although they did that, too).

Aiming for more fun was the Liam Neeson vehicle Taken (2008).  Allowing audiences still drunk on the torture porn subgenre to get their kicks, but confuse savagery with quality, it was another huge hit, spawning two sequels and a TV series.  The premise, more grounded that The Expendables’ OTT army-of-one-man-armies, saw Neeson’s retired CIA spook seek bloody revenge on the gangsters who kidnapped his daughter.  It’s also pretty mediocre, but the gimmick of Neeson’s highly skilled badass tearing through the Albanian mafia was irresistible to many.

Neeson, a better actor than his late career suggests, seemingly couldn’t resist the paycheques and went on to star in guff like Unknown, Non Stop, Run All Night, and A Walk Among The Tombstones (which isn’t as bad as the marketing suggested it would be).  The odd grouping of Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren brought a kind of naff comic book twist with RED and RED 2, which we probably could have done without. Richard Gere (The Double) and Kevin Costner (3 Days To Kill) have also got in on the act, with limited success.  The sub-genre in full swing, then started to get bizarrely more interesting as it went on.  A brief history of sub-genre fads will tell you, these things tend to succumb to the law of diminishing returns (postmodern horror, high school comedy, torture porn, found footage, epic fantasy, manchild comedy, anything Adam Sandler made), but Geriaction has recently started to churn out some quality.

Denzel Washington was perhaps an obvious choice to get his own vehicle (albeit one with a blue badge), but when Antoice Fuqua directed him in The Equalizer (2014) it was quite a surprise when the results were actually pretty good! An adaptation of the Edward Woodward TV series, Washington brings his megawatt charisma and a cool efficiency to his retired black ops man-on-a-mission.  The film looks great, had plenty of intrigue and is pleasingly unpleasant where it needs to be.  It’s nothing, though, without Washington’s stoic, OCD killing machine.

To the surprise of just about everybody, though, Keanu Reeves’ John Wick (2014) managed to blend a great hook (somebody wrongs the titular master assassin, who then leaves a trail of bodies in his wake), an actual mythology (the incredibly cool assassin hideout/market The Continental), and some impressive action chops.  The equally good sequel shows that the idea had and still has mileage.  While Reeves, currently 52, may not exactly fit the pensioner model, the premise of ‘Retired Badass Reluctantly Takes One Last Job’ still feels fresh enough to carry the film.

Referring back to my original premise and opening paragraph, the current spandex-happy action trend has added to the Geriaction canon with this year’s Logan.  A sequel to two terrible Wolverine films, and with a protagonist who has been misused in at least half of the X-Men franchise, James Mangold’s film is brutal but melancholic; a fine antidote to constant superhero excess.  It also finally answers the question of how to pose a challenge to a character whose healing factor makes him almost invulnerable: make him old and stop him from healing.  This vulnerability adds a whole extra layer of interest and drama; he’s gone from wild animal to underdog.

And therein lies the appeal of the geriaction subgenre; the underdog bites back.  While the 80s revelled in indestructible super-men, and the 90s in crazy high concept, we now live in an age of franchises and remakes.  It’s a reversal of the 80s trend and a simplification of the 90s, making new franchises along the way; take a man who’s past it or simply doesn’t want it anymore, fuck with his life, light the fuse and walk away.  Like the characters, this has probably now had its day, but it has been a subgenre that has got steadily better with age.

But officially, The Wild Bunch is still the best of the lot.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Mission: Imposspielberg, Vol. 7 - Robots and Predictions

Following up an Oscar winner is apparently a difficult task. Although Scorsese followed up his long overdue win for The Departed with the fine-but-slight Shutter Island, and Inarritu managed to follow Birdman with the small matter of The Revenant, Mr. Spielberg seems to find it harder.  Famously originated as a project for Stanley Kubrick before perceived technical limitations, and then death prevented his vision find its way to the screen, A.I. Artificial Intelligence was burdened from birth.

While the two were apparently friends, Spielberg and Kubrick hardly showed the same worldviews on screen.  Where Spielberg favours classical Hollywood narratives and happy endings, Kubrick’s world is more ambiguous.  It’s hard to imagine, for example, a Spielberg version of Eyes Wide Shut without Cruise, Kidman, and child sharing a sexless embrace against a strong white light, reunited as a family unit.  Kubrick’s Jurassic Park might have ended with Hammond as Dr. Moreau, alone on the island, descending into madness among his creations. Kubrick’s endings tend to leave the audience hanging, as if there’s more to the story existing solely in your imagination; Spielberg on the other hand prefers to present his endings neat packages, normally happy ones tied with a bow. What Kubrick might have made of Brian Aldiss’ source material ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ is anyone’s guess, so I’ll try to put that aside and focus on what’s on the screen.

It’s probably a bad sign that of his post-Millennium work, this is one of the films I think of watching the least.  On review, it’s not as bad as I remember… for the most part.  And that is quite a caveat, given that the film’s ending ruins much of the good work before it.  Separating Kubrick’s ghost from what’s in the film is hard, and has informed many opinions of the film, but the ending is just inexcusable and feels like concession to a studio putting up a handsome budget, and wanting a Hollywood ending in return.

For an admirably long time, A.I. is a very dark movie. While his trademark broken family unit is largely the main thrust of the plot, Spielberg plays against type, making his obligatory cute kid (Hayley Joes Osment’s android David) both endearing and creepy as he works his way into a tragedy-stricken family.  Over-exposed, grainy photography marks out the early scenes, highlighting David’s artifice against the very real need for love from both him and his adoptive mother Monica (Frances O’Connor).  Some of these scenes are genuinely moving, with David an apparently adequate surrogate until the family’s real son recovers and returns.  Things turn dark as David’s programmed survival mechanism almost results in the son’s drowning, the look of shock on David’s face as he sinks to the bottom of a pool both human and completely alien.

Other scenes that are brutally un-Spielberg include Monica leaving David in the forest; him pleading for mercy from his mother, while she sees the act as a tearful necessity.  The Ministry-soundtracked Flesh Fair, on one hand full of Steam Punk cliché, on the other framed like hideous torture porn, our sympathies lying more with the endangered ‘mechas’ than the baying humans.  Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, doing some of his best work) is an interesting character to thrown into a film about children but highlights that in this nightmarish vision of the future, even sex has become artificial.  Finally, the scene in which David encounters rows of boxes containing more Davids is nothing short of horrible for a character who has at this point gained our sympathies.

But then there’s the ending… Eschewing for a second the cheating (David is apparently the first Mecha with self-awareness and emotions, so how come Joe shows an instinct for self-peservation? I normally hate plot-hole dwellers, but this one bugged me), and how awful the Dr. Know scene is (not even a fleeting reference to Bad Brains…), the ending of this film is truly awful.  A much more effective closing would have been David, sitting in a submerged Coney Island, forever waiting for the Blue Fairy to make him real.  That’s how Kubrick would have ended it, but Spielberg can’t resist the family reunion. So we are subjected to the post-human sequence in which the robot inhabitants of Earth find David in the ice and offer him one day of maternal reunion.  A.I.  is at once an exploration of the nature of love, particularly between mother and child, and admirable for steadfastly refusing to let David lose his innocence), but at the same time it’s horribly saccharine, and he should have learned by now.

For a second sci-fi adaptation on the bounce, Spielberg tackled Phillip K Dick’s Minority Report next.  Much like Hitchcock before him, the populist Spielberg by this stage works with the biggest stars in the world.  The next few years would see him work with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks (again), and Daniel Craig but first he would pair up with Hollywood’s then-biggest star, Tom Cruise.  An underrated actor in my opinion, Cruise suits the part of framed cop John Anderton down to the ground.

While not destined to go down as a stone cold Spielberg classic, Minority Report is a fine film and does a great many things right. It’s effectively a film noir plot about a man wrongly (or is he?) accused of a murder, the twist being that it hasn’t happened yet and the man is in charge of predictive crime prevention.  Phil K Dick’s ‘what if?’ sci-fi often presents moral quandaries, and high-concept ‘Pre-Crime’ (an agency which uses clairvoyant ‘Precognatives’ to accurately predict murders and stop them before they happen) is a great one.  Spielberg, however, uses it as a jet-fuelled plot catalyst and from the moment Anderton is accused, the film barely comes up for air. And we all know how good Tom Cruise is at running…

Minority Report is shot in a neo-noir style but structured like an Indiana Jones-like chase film; detective drama meets electric set pieces.  Rather than the chiaroscuro style that defined noir, it is awash with over-exposed imagery early on with a focus on shots of eyes and glasses, what can and can’t be seen; it features the strangest (and probably most literal) femme fatale in cinema history (Emily Mortimer’s jittery ‘precog’ Agatha); and it builds to an understated climax, with an accusation rather than a chase or a fist fight.  As blockbusters go, it’s a strange one; noir-ish, but the theme of predetermined guilt makes it almost Hitchcockian (often a stylistic influence on Spielberg).  The high-concept, CGI-heavy sci-fi with a human core (Spielberg’s broken family unit, never more broken than here) is pure Spielberg.

The set pieces are impressive. For example, the scene where Anderton escapes from his own squad is one of the best in Spielberg’s latter work.  He cuts to the family eating dinner before showing the jetpacks crashing through their floor.  He sells the Lexus factory escape without the usual physics-defying jumping and punching.  It’s exciting and just the right side of funny.

Yes, there are problems: Anderton’s drug habit is a little trite and doesn’t quite fit the story; Agatha’s psychic abilities seem to suddenly switch on when a (admittedly pretty cool) set piece requires them; and the ending is ever so slightly on the too-happy side, although he does have the good grace not to oversell it.

He’s yet to venture back into pure sc-fi (and I’d much rather he did than fuck about with animation) and on the strength of these films, he’s still got the visual flair to make it interesting but he’s arguably a bit too optimistic, and not quite cynical enough, to pull it off in a post-Blade Runner and The Matrix world.  Bloody optimist…

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Mission: Imposspielberg, Vol 6 - Boats and Bullets

After the relative disappointment of The Lost World, which was at best too light and fluffy to be of any real quality so the director took his eye off the ball, or at worst a cynical cash in, Spielberg got serious.  Amistad is one of the rare Spielberg films that I hadn’t previously seen before embarking on this insane project, and while it’s certainly not one I’ll be reaching for on a Saturday night, it’s important, handsome and well performed. It sits comfortably alongside Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge Of Spies, Munich, and Lincoln as one of his ‘morality in immoral times’ films.

Amistad tells the 1839 story of a mutiny aboard the titular slave ship and the subsequent legal battle over the ownership of the people on board, and therefore the morality of ownership of a person in the context of pre-Revolutionary America.  Djimon Hounsou is on force-of-nature form as Sengbe Pieh, leader of the mutiny and figurehead of the legal case.  It’s a little patronising that he’s pretty much the only of the ‘slave’ population considered intelligent enough to speak at the trial, but Spielberg telegraphs the drama away from such concerns with a focus on how awful slavery was. 

There are strong performances across the board, with a post-A Time To Kill, pre-rom-com apocalypse Matthew McConaughey showing good form and Anthony Hopkins turning in what we now know to be a pretty standard ‘elder statesman’ performance as former president John Quincy Adams.  Oscar nominated at the time, Hopkins is impressive in his impassioned grandstanding, but as courtroom performances go, it’s no better than, say, Kevin Costner in JFK or McConaughey himself in A Time To Kill.  Hounsou is the star, his rage and humanity battling beneath the surface throughout.

No sensible person should need to have the fact that slavery was awful spelled out for them but Spielberg does an admirable job of highlighting the horrors.  We don’t feel remotely bad about the crewmen being murdered by the slaves; we celebrate the freed slaves’ victories; we feel incredulous at their treatment.  It’s such an obvious subject that the whole thing feels a little forced, but there’s skill in the telling of the story.  It’s easily slotted into the Spielberg canon alongside Lincoln as one of his well-meaning but preaching-to-the-choir films.  Yes, you don’t need to hear a passionate argument against slavery in The Land Of The Free, but sometimes passion gets you a lot way.

His career in danger of drying up somewhat in the years post-Schindler’s List, 1999 saw Spielberg rediscover his mojo with Saving Private Ryan.  Holding a special place in my heart as one of the films I remember seeing at Newcastle’s beautiful Odeon cinema before it closed, Ryan marks Spielberg’s 4th collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, but the first time Kaminski’s influence was really as great as that of the director.

Wrongly criticised for being a dull film bookended by two memorable actions sequences, Ryan’s style became the ubiquitous in WW2 films: imitated but never equalled, the brothers-in-arms quality of the roughly-drawn characters just enough to keep things interesting and make you care about them, and the shaky-camera style nothing short of visceral.  I started Mission: Imposspielberg to remind myself of how I felt about his films years after I first saw them, and I’m happy to report that Ryan has lost none of its power.

The Omaha beach sequence rightly hogged the headlines back in 1999.  As brutal as anything Spielberg has shot before or since, this depiction of the hell of war is heart-in-mouth stuff.  Named characters, led by Tom Hanks’ everyman Cap. Miller, are thrown into the breach on the beach, allowing us to see just enough of them as countless others are slain around them.  Ed Burns’ bland Noo Yawker, Giovanni Ribisi’s moral medic, Barry Pepper’s memorable sniper, and Tom Sizemore’s indestructible grunt are all introduced with the narrative economy befitting an ensemble war movie, all the while chaos reigns around them.

The Brothers In Arms road movie format works well, Matt Damon’s Ryan an increasingly inaccessible MacGuffin (‘Saving Major MacGuffin’, presumably a rejected early draft), while a fine supporting cast (including Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina) help to ease things along.  It all builds, of course, to a stunning climactic battle, with a seriously tooled-up German battalion attacking an under-staffed U.S. Army outpost.  Ryan earns his stripes and the respect of the cast, Damon doing good work and, a rising star at the time, well cast as the dutiful GI.

Spielberg’s visual invention is unleashed throughout, but it’s the quiet, subtle moments rather than the grandiose battle scenes that steal the thunder.  A reflection in the window as a military procession arrives at Mrs. Ryan’s house, a captured German troop digging his own grave in silhouette; these are the moments that give the film heart, as well as Tom Hanks’ restrained performance.  His first collaboration with Spielberg, his humanity grounds the film (in a way that, say, Brad Pitt in Fury doesn’t), allowing the quirks of the ensemble cast do their thing, and reminding us that there’s a real person in the middle of the horror.

This is one of my favourite Spielberg films and watching it again after a good few years just reminds me of why.  It absolutely nails everything a war movie should have: a great ensemble cast (like Cross Of Iron, or The Great Escape), dehumanising horrors (The Big Red One, Full Metal Jacket), but a strong human core (Paths Of Glory, The Deer Hunter).  Spielberg’s often maligned, occasionally twee tendency towards soft-focus Hollywood-isms meets his sometimes-seen penchant for the visceral headlong and the results are rightly Oscar-winning.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

My Top 10 Albums of 2016 (in no particular order)

Architects – All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us
Legally, I’m probably too old to listen to Brighton’s favourite sons but Architects keep churning out quality albums so it’s hard to ignore them.  2012’s Daybreaker and 2014’s Lost Together // Lost Forever took them to what I assumed was the natural peak of their math/core sound, having wisely ditched the naïve Dillinger-isms of their first couple of records. I was wrong, as I normally am, and AOGHAU is another triumph for British metal.  Here’s hoping they keep it going after the tragic loss of founding member Tom Searle, aged only 28.

Dinosaur Jr. – Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not
J. Mascis’ slacker-grunge combo have always bothered me.  Capable of both genius singles (‘Freak Scene,’ ‘Whatever’s Col With Me,’ or the grunge-era breakthrough ‘Start Choppin’’) and dull shoegaze album tracks, they have always been patchy for me, but with Mascis’ guitar sound, never less than distinctive. Glimpse shows them consistently at their best, with some absolute tunes on show.  Driving rock riffs on ‘Goin Down’ and melancholy melodies on ‘Be A Part’, all cut through by Mascis’ massive guitar tones and sloppy-sounding but actually perfectly pitched solos.  Showing us how it’s done, and we should be grateful for it.

Bob Mould – Patch The Sky
The world’s least rock star-sounding rock star released probably the best rock album of the year.  Former Husker Du and Sugar frontman Mould has always had a knack for marrying punk riffs to glorious melodies and this record saw him produce some of his finest material in ages. Mould’s influence on my record collection is huge and it’s refreshing to hear him release a record so vital after 30-odd years of influencing other musicians to do so. With songs like ‘The End Of Things’, Mould is still showing people how it’s done.

Every Time I Die – Low Teens
I wasn’t a huge fan of 2014 album From Parts Unknown, a (relative) lack of variety married to a muted production left me feeling unsatisfied after 2012’s fine Ex-Lives, but I always have faith in the Buffalo, NY bruisers to keep the quality barometer high. Low Teens boasts everything you’d want from them: Keith Buckley’s articulate lyrical invention; a barrage of riffs; breakneck tempo changes; and more ideas than you can shake a Cancer Bats record at.  Showcasing full throttle hardcore (‘Petal’, ‘Glitches’), epic slower tunes (‘Two Summers’, ‘It Remembers’, ‘Map Change’), chugging riff machines (‘Religion Of Speed’, ‘The Coin Has A Say’) and the downright weird (‘Fear & Trembling’), Low Teens has a bit of everything and it’s all done so well.

Ginger Wildheart – Year Of The Fan Club
Currently in a career renaissance, having discovered crowdfunding, he’s now managed three fine solo albums on the bounce following 100% and Albion, and long may it continue.  Also releasing the 2nd Hey!Hello! (bubblegum pop with added riffs) record an 3rd Mutation (art-noise, industrial kinda stuff) record this year, South Shields’ answer to Lennon, McCartney, Kurt Cobain and that Gallagher dickhead is a busy man (and none of them wrote ‘Geordie In Wonderland’…).  Containing by far and away the best tune of the year in ‘Only Henry Rollins Can Save Us Now’, this is as varied as Ginger has ever been. The folky ‘Toxins and Tea’ and ‘The Pendine Incident’, the wistful ‘If You Find Yourself In London Town’ rubbing shoulders with multifaceted epic ‘Don’t Lose Your Tail, Girl’, which sees Ginger paying tribute to positive female influences in his life.  Any album containing the lines “in the grim North East they all laugh at least” and “ok, calm down, let’s get fucking Zen about it,” deserves to sell millions.

Kvelertak – Nattesferd
Having evolved beyond the barmy Black Metal assault of their first album, 2013’s Meir saw them experiment with 70’s stadium rock, and Nattesferd sees them go full retro.  The triple-guitar lineup allows them to layer up their sound, which works to great effect here with melodic leads cutting through riffs that could have come from early Aerosmith or KISS records.  ‘1985’ could easily have come from a Van Halen album (probably 1984) and ‘Svartmesse’ is a Scandinavian earworm.  Within two albums, these Norwegian psychopaths (don’t believe me? See them live.) have gone from blast beats to catchy choruses. Praise be to the Odinson!

Heck – Instructions
The artists formerly known as Baby Godzilla returned with a new name and the same fierce sound.  Somewhere between anything Nirvana did that wasn’t Nevermind, and The Dillinger Escape Plan, Heck are raw, furious, and full of invention.  Punchy, multi-tempo songs build to a brilliant, 16-minute album closer.  Never a dull moment. More, please.

The Fall Of Troy – Ok
Having disappeared after 2009’s In The Unlikely Event, Washington state’s own Muse-on-crack returned in triumphant fashion with Ok.  The title is misleading; far from mediocre, this shows off the full range of Thomas Erak’s extensive guitar skills and the band’s formidable rhythm section. Seemingly impossible riffs welded into catchy, unique tunes like ‘401-K’ and ‘Suck-O-Matic’ with Erak’s manic yelp and slacker croon over the top.  Also, they decided to give the album away for free, making it the year’s best bargain.

Ihsahn – Arktis
Former Emperor man Ihsahn has been churning out solo albums for several years now, and not one of them has interested me.  This, his sixth offering, might change my mind, such is the quality and variety on display.  Not a hint of the symphonic black metal with which he made his name, Arktis is eclectic, exciting collection of tunes covering several genres. Hard to pin down and hard to predict, vocally and musically this is a beautiful experience.

Black Peaks – Statues

Brighton is apparently battling Leeds for the title (given by me) of England’s Seattle, and its latest export, Black Peaks, are destined for greatness.  Part Mastodon, part Reuben (whose singer Jamie Lenman guests on one track), they were a breath of fresh air in 2016.  Downright bizarre riffs, time signatures and textures are cut through by Will Gardner’s versatile vocal delivery.  Songs like ‘Saviour’ and ‘Glass Build Castles’ were complex enough to mark them out as unique, but catchy enough to be Karrang! Radio hits.  Like Marmozets a couple of years back, this is a band with immense promise.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Gig review: The Dillinger Escape Plan, Nottingham Rock City, 21/01/17

It’s never a nice thing when a band you like decide to break up, but when The Dillinger Escape Plan’s guitarist and founder Ben Weinman announced that 2016’s Dissociation album would be their swansong, it made a strange kind of sense.  There were no petty spats, no ‘musical differences’ (read: petty spats) and no embarrassingly public fallouts; they’ve just decided that enough is enough.  Weinman’s reasons made sense: not wanting to keep doing it when people were over it; not wanting to descend into self-parody; not wanting to try to push a pretty extreme band for longer than age would allow.  They wanted to leave dead horses unflogged and I respected that, even though I didn’t really like it.

Cruelly avoiding Newcastle on their farewell tour, we piled into a car and headed to Nottingham’s fine Rock City venue to see them off.  Hard to pigeonhole, Dillinger have had several labels thrown at them and have done their best to avoid them all: math-core, math-metal, metal-core, and whatever other hybrid terms lazy hacks could muster.  At times nodding to the likes of Nine Inch Nails or Faith No More as much as their whatever-core predecessors Botch and Coalesce, Dillinger simply sound like Dillinger.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see that Rock City, while not filled to capacity, is respectably busy for a band that isn’t exactly easy on the ears.  Apparently preferring Jack Daniels to support bands, we managed to miss one and a half of the supports and arrive midway through Ho99o9’s (pronounced ‘Horror’, apparently) set.  A live drummer and no other instruments that I could see, they were basically two guys stomping around the stage and shouting.  Wikipedia lists them as ‘experimental hip hop’ and when was Wikipedia ever been wrong?  The dense, mostly-bass noise that accompanies the vocals was pretty cool, it’s just a shame that they didn’t bring anyone with them to play it live, and it did get a little repetitive after a while.  Call me old fashioned, but that’s just cheating.

Dillinger, fronted by the impossibly ripped Greg Puciato, walk on to minimal lightshow or fuss and kick into recent single ‘Limerent Death’.  The rolling riff gives way to some NIN-like quiet moments before the accelerating tempo of the ending and some frankly savage screams from Puciato.  ‘Panasonic Youth’ is next, showcasing the breakneck tempo changes and baffling time signatures that make them such a unique prospect.

Puciato has developed into a fine frontman (hard going, since he technically replaced Mike Patton in the band) with a versatile range, which he shows off effortlessly tonight (how many of these [blank]-core bands have the drummer do the clean vocals because the singer can’t?).  Capable of a controlled falsetto, a fierce scream, and a distinctive clean vocal, he’s a ball of energy on stage.  In fact, it’s exhausting just watching them, such is the intensity of the show.  Weinman is a hyperactive presence (probably reflected in his writing style), seemingly unable to play a full song without mounting an amplifier or launching himself across the stage.  Not missing a single note while doing it, by the way.

The set draws from their 20-year career, with 5 songs pulled from Dissociation, and a good selection from the rest.  ‘Milk Lizard’ brings a dirty groove, ‘Black Bubblegum’ and ‘When I Lost My Bet’ are all stop-start rhythms and weird tempos, and the dynamic ‘One Of Us Is The Killer’ is the closest thing they’ll do to a conventional song.  Of their signature skittering ‘math’ songs, ‘Sunshine The Werewolf’ and ‘Farewell, Mona Lisa’ stand out as excellent songs as well as absolute monsters.

They slow it down with the piano-led ‘Mouths Of Ghosts’ before destroying the place with a final rendition of older tune ‘43% Burnt’.

It’s impressive enough that they can even remember such complex, fast and technical songs, but to be so tight and together live shows just what and exceptional band we’re losing.  They’re incredible tonight and as the crowd streams out I don’t think any of us will really appreciate how special they were until later.  Sure, we still have bands like Norma Jean, Car Bomb, Heck, Candiria and (presumably) Converge but good as they are none of them quite have what Dillinger had.

And here’s me already referring to them in the past tense.  Shit.