Monday, 9 October 2017

Film Review: My take on Aronofsky's mother!

When a film carries a reputation before it even comes out and then divides opinion down the middle, it’s hard to steer clear of snippets of information before you see it.  Such was the case with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which has gained headlines for putting star Jennifer Lawrence through the wringer and for being batshit crazy.  I’m going to attempt to get to the bottom of what this unique, difficult, and visceral film is all about.  I probably won’t be right, but one of the remarkable things about mother!, is that interpretation is not just invited, but essential to enjoying it.

My gut reaction on leaving the cinema was that it was like watching an escalating panic attack.  Cinematically, Aronofsky has outdone the gut punches he threw with Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan, adding an acute sensation of drowning in anxiety.  The entire film is set within an impressively complex octagonal house; that we never leave is important to my interpretation, but I’ll get to that later. Boasting impeccable production design, mother! is meticulously constructed with the express intention of keeping you on edge, and then sharpening the edge.  Creaking floors, unpredictable water pipes, and the unpleasant sound of glass rubbing on glass are almost constant, and this is aside from J-Law’s nameless character often seeing a decaying heart through the walls.

The ‘plot’ (loose as it is) sees Lawrence trying to restore husband Javier Bardem’s fire-damaged house.  Uninvited visitors arrive, preventing her work, while he (a respected poet) does none anyway.  An unnamed Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive and befriend Bardem; drinking and smoking, they are passive-aggressive towards Lawrence and ignore her every request.  They go to Bardem’s forbidden writing room, which contains a strange, brittle crystal, implied to be his inspiration.  They break it, and then when told to leave go to their room and have sex instead.   Their children and extended family arrive and won’t leave when Lawrence asks them to (often asking if this was his decision, as though hers doesn’t count). This escalates to a point where the endless guests, mostly ignoring her or carrying out unrequested decorating on her behalf, sit on an unfinished sink and cause a flood.  Cue Lawrence going apeshit and making them leave (although they still look at her like she’s overreacting).  Lawrence and Bardem have sex and she wakes up instinctively knowing that she’s pregnant; this inspires Bardem to write like a man possessed.

Jump forward 9 months and Lawrence is ready to drop, while Bardem’s poem is finished.  Believing it to be his best work, within minutes of completion it starts to attract increasingly sycophantic and fanatical readers to the house.  He basks in the adulation, but Lawrence can’t keep them out of the house (again), and they start to become abusive.  Now… if at this point you’re taking any of the film literally, you will be thinking that mother! is baffling, annoying, and probably a little silly.  The fans, including Kristen Wiig’s publicist, start to debate the meaning of the poem, form factions over its meaning, then execute opposing factions, then a full-on war breaks out.  All the while, Lawrence is trying to find somewhere quiet so she can give birth.

Baffled by her husband’s behaviour, she refuses to hand the child over to him, fearing what he’ll do.  She falls asleep and he takes it, handing it over to the waiting mob… who proceed to kill, eviscerate and eat the baby.  Her protests result in her being called a whore and beaten by the fanatical crowd.  Angry, she retreats to the basement and uses Ed Harris’ lost cigarette lighter to ignite heating oil and destroy the house.  An unharmed Bardem pulls out her heart, from which he then finds another crystal.  The film ends with the same shot that began it: ‘mother’ waking in her bed, only this time played by a different actress.

I don’t normally describe the whole plot in these things, but in this case the details are important.  My take is that mother! roughly, loosely tells the story of the bible from Genesis to Revelations, but from the point of view of Mother Nature (Lawrence).  The house represents Earth (Lawrence states that she wants to make it a paradise), hence Lawrence can’t leave it.  Bardem’s study, the Garden of Eden.

Bardem plays God; proud, resting on his laurels, and bathing in the adulation of his followers.  His poem is the bible (or another holy text) – a throwaway line states that everybody takes its meaning differently.  Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam & Eve; entering the forbidden room, breaking something they shouldn’t have touched then popping off for a shag.  Their warring children, obsessed with inheritance and legacy, are Cain and Abel.  Those who follow are the human race; going with this reading of the film, Aronofsky clearly has little affection for his species as they ignore, destroy and abuse nature content as long as they think their God is happy and welcoming.  This phase of the film ends with a flood (his previous film, Noah, didn’t do it this well) which empties the house.

The second phase of the film, once ‘mother’ is pregnant, tells the tale of organised religion.  Factions form based on differing interpretations, they fight, and the house becomes dangerously overpopulated, all he while ‘mother’ is shunned and abused, the film becomes overwhelming to watch.  Bardem often refers to her as his Goddess; one might see this as simply affectionate but nothing else about his behaviour supports this.   The most horrific part of the film centres around the baby; the crowd stops their violence in anticipation of the 2nd coming, and then promptly resumes, and the unrepentant nastiness that follows can be read as the origins of the Catholic church.

Rather than just telling the bible story as a lengthy metaphor, Aronofsky seems intent on making a point.  That point is up for debate but here are a few suggestions:

That Lawrence’s Mother Nature character is shunned, ignored, abused, and her creation trampled by countless brainwashed humans, plays into Aronofsky’s well publicised environmental concerns.  His message may be that if we continue down this road – too much respect for a lazy, egotistical God and not enough for the goddess who does all the actual work in sustaining our world – she will turn on us and we will then be promptly fucked, and God will not care.  mother! can also be read as a warning about the dangers of an increasingly misogynistic world.  Everybody, even female characters, take Bardem seriously, love and respect him, but patronise and ignore the actual creative force.  Even when she creates life, all anybody cares about is that it came from him.  Probably the most personal reading is that Aronofsky is commenting on the creative process itself: nobody cares about the muse, only the poet, whose success causes the neglect and destruction of the muse.  The poet then moves on to another muse.

mother!, while horrific, is not a horror film.  It owes a huge debt to Polanski: the claustrophobia and ‘living’ rooms of Repulsion, and the bleak commentary on motherhood that pervades Rosemary’s Baby.  It trusts the audience to go along with the metaphor – taking it literally will mean not taking it seriously.  On an emotional level, it is a cinematic masterpiece; if you let mother! in, it will make you feel something and leave you different to how it found you.  And that is the essence of all great art, and like all great art, nobody says it has to be pretty.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Gig Review: Life of Agony - Northumbria University 19/09/17

Newcastle, despite being such a small city, boasts two universities, both of which used to have fine music venues.  Used to.  Newcastle University’s once-fine underground venue is now a homogenised plastic shell, and entering Northumbria Students Union now feels like walking through a PFI-built hospital.  There used to be two venues in here: the smaller theatre-style downstairs venue – now a café – and the upstairs sports hall-like cavern, which is modestly curtained off for tonight’s show.  It’s probably telling that the University’s once-excellent bookshop is now a branch of Santander, but I’m not 100% what it’s telling and won’t get into it here.

Life Of Agony have apparently never played here before.  Despite breaking out of the early 90s New York hardcore scene, LOA have always been more of a metal band.  Like their contemporaries Type O Negative, they threw in big Sabbath-y riffs and introspective gloom along with the occasional punk rhythm on first two albums Rover Runs Red and Ugly.  They evolved more and more into grunge territory with 1997’s Soul Searching Sun before splitting, reforming, splitting again, and then returning with this year’s patchy A Place Where There’s No More Pain.  What set the apart from their own, or any other, scene has always been Mina Caputo’s remarkable voice.  Tortured and vulnerable, but powerful enough to cut through the noise created by guitarist Alan Z, bassist Alan Robert, and drummer Sal Abruscato, it made LOA a more interesting prospect than most metal or hardcore bands of the time.

There are barely any people in the venue as I walk in.  Openers Blood Runs Deep are playing what sounds like the soundtrack to a nightmare.  Progressive, doomy, crushingly heavy and with songs that go on for about a day, they seem to enjoy themselves but probably don’t make many new fans tonight, such is the dearth of early punters.  The venue’s lack of filler material makes clear just how absolutely devoid of soul this place is.  It’s honestly like watching a band in a grim community centre.  The fucking academy is better than this place, and the academy is dogshit.

I’m always wary of bands who call themselves after a member’s name and the Somethings. Unless you happen to be Prince, Slash, or Huey Lewis, you really can’t pull it off. Local band Frankie and the Heartstrings sound like they should be shit, and are.  Even Frank Carter manages to sound like a cunt with The Rattlesnakes. So up next are Aaron Buchanan (no, me neither) and the Cult Classics.  I spent much of their terrible set Googling who the fuck Aaron Buchanan was (he was in Heaven’s Basement, apparently.  I have no idea who they were).  In possession of a powerful voice but using it to belt out turgid, sub-Guns n’ Roses drivel, Buchanan is the worst thing about his own band.  His Freddie Mercury stage moves, embarrassing stage banter, and hilarious silver jacket overpower what would be a tight but forgettable band.  He looks like a matador on a cruise ship and comes across like an absolute bellend.

LOA have attracted some very committed but not terribly numerous fans and the venue is sadly much less than full when they come onstage.  Fortunately, this doesn’t bother them one bit and 27 years of waiting turns into 50 minutes of awesome as they tear through thier back catalogue with style.

Opening with the one-two combo of arguably their best songs in ‘River Runs Red’ and the still-excellent ‘This Time’, they go on to represent every album but are wise enough to lean heavily on the first two.  We get ‘Weeds’ from Soul Searching Sun and ‘Love To Let You Down’ from Broken Valley.  Wisely only dipping a toe into the new stuff, we get pulverising renditions of ‘Lost At 22’, ‘Through and Through’ and ‘Other Side Of The River’.  It’s a crowd pleaser set and the band are enjoying it as much as any of us in the audience.

Joey Z peels out riff after riff while ain songwriter Alan Robert holds it all together on bass.  Caputo is the star of the show, though.  Vocally, moving from piercing baritone to something loser to Layne Staley over the years, she hits every note and musters all the passion you would want to see.  They make jokes about how sparse the crows is, and about firing members of the band.  The diminutive Caputo, shy and reserved at first, suddenly decides that she doesn’t like being onstage in front of so few people and decides to perform 2/3 of the show standing at the security barriers in front of the stage, sharing the mic with adoring fans.  Despite not having written their more heartfelt songs, Caputo delivers with passion, enthusiasm, and a surprising amount of humour.

Despite the low turnout, the band are appreciative and belt out handcore anthem ‘Underground’ before leaving us thoroughly satisfied yet wanting just a few more songs.  We’ve just witnessed one of the more unique bands our beloved genre ever spawned, mixing the punk aggression of hardcore and the bleak, introspective lyricism of grunge.  It’s been a long wait to see them play in our home town, but worth every second.  It may well be a life if agony, but times like this at least offer some glorious respite.

Monday, 18 September 2017

American [Blank]. Two film reviews for the price of one!

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a Cineworld Unlimited card will go and see any old crap at the cinema, just so he feels like he’s getting value for money.  I draw the fucking line at Jane Austen adaptations, by the way.  This year has seen me take in some genuinely great films (Get Out, Baby Driver, Dunkirk) and some absolute dross (King Arthur, The Mummy, Transformers).  At a loose end and with no idea of the quality of either film, I decided to see two consecutive films featuring the word ‘American’ in the title.

Cinema has a complicated recent history with this approach.  Such is America’s vast cultural influence, adding the word to the start of the film carries, for better or worse, some serious weight, either bestowing a superlative quality or suggesting a uniqueness only found in the 50 states. There are some classics (Beauty, Psycho, Movie, Graffiti and - for its time - Pie), most of which run with the unquantifiable uniqueness angle.  There are some decent but forgettable films (Sniper, Gangster, Mary, Hustle), and some which, if I’m being generous, just aren’t up to much (Ultra, Pastoral).  So how would the latest entries, American Assassin and American Made measure up

Assassin is first up.  It tries to be a Jack Bauer/Jason Bourne-like ‘living weapon’ film but suffers from ham-fisted politics (Iran wanting to nuke Israel, etc.) in the plotting, some truly awful dialogue, and logical gaps that make Suicide Squad seem coherent.

Occasional maze runner Dylan O’Brian, miscast but doing his best, plays Mitch Rapp (yes, he’s really called that), a young man whose life is torn apart when his implausibly attractive fiancé is killed by pesky Islamic fundamentalists moments after he’s proposed.  Despite being shot several times himself, he spends the next 18 months not recovering from bullet wounds, but preparing himself to be the titular assassin.  We aren’t told that he has any previous specialist training, but he becomes a skilled MMA fighter, weapons expert, and all round spy in the time it takes most people to plan a wedding.

Trying to infiltrate and kill the terrorist cell responsible for his dead girlfriend, he gets on the CIA radar and is selected for specialist Black Ops training ran by none other than Michael Keaton in the kind of role that former A-listers like him and Kevin Costner get these days (he’s better than this and he knows it, but having the time of his life being hard as fuck).  The CIA’s logic (used sparingly here) is that Rapp’s lack of army training makes him ideal for deep cover as he won’t have to “un-learn bad habits…” and won’t stand out as a boot camp graduate.

What ensues is a globetrotting search for missing weapons-grade nuclear material and Taylor Kitsch who, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, turns out to be a former protégé of Keaton’s and out for revenge.  There are a few scenes of decent enough action, a good fight scene between Kitsch and O’Brian (inventively set on a speedboat so advantages are lost and gained every time it hits a wave), and the whole film has a pleasing no-punches-pulled brutality to it.  Any indications that they were trying to attract a Young Adult audience by casting O’Brian disappear during a scene where fingernails are removed during torture.

That said, the whole thing is very silly, not terribly good, and the key plot point - Rapp’s transition from Very Angry Young Man to American hero - is too much of a leap.  As these films tend to, it makes implausible jumps, dispenses with character motivation where the plot requires.  O’Brian does his best at playing a tortured man overcoming tragedy and does ok with the physical stuff, but ultimately he looks like the member of a boyband who gets all the attention.  The action is just ok, and the plot falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.  Atomic Blonde is much much better at doing the same thing; American here offers no superlative.

Doug Liman, having kick-started the rogue assassin sub-genre with The Bourne Identity and long since abandoned his Indie roots, directs Tom Cruise for the second time in American Made.  Based on the true story of Barry Seal, a former commercial airline pilot recruited by the CIA in the late 70s to spy on revolutionary forces in Central American countries, and then by Pablo Escobar to smuggle cocaine on his return flights, American Made is a fine film.

Cruise plays seal and turns in one of his best, least showy, performances.  Smartly told by Seal in a series of flashbacks on self-recorded VHS tapes, this legitimately allows for an exposition-dealing voiceover to cover the more complex parts of the plot.  Structurally, the film follows the Goodfellas-Wolf Of Wall Street model of huge rise and sudden fall. We see Seal’s life become more and more complex as the CIA expends his operation to include guns and eventually people.  He becomes involved in the notorious Nicaraguan Contra affair, moving troops to be trained in America and weapons in the opposite direction.  Not letting facts get in the way of a good story, Liman sets a good pace and lets the insanity ensue.  He also keeps a light and breezy tone, despite the drama featuring some of the darkest actions in the history of U.S. foreign policy.  For anyone who knows anything about the bloody history of the region this may seem incongruous, distasteful even, but Liman is playing for fun; showing the American way (enterprise, capitalism) as fun, dangerous, but the only way to live.

A shady CIA is personified by Domhnall Gleeson, playing Seal’s handler ‘Schaffer’.  Cocksure when manipulating Seal’s every move but clearly under pressure when back in his office, Gleeson gives another in a string of fine performances.  Caleb Landry Jones does well as Seal’s brainless hick brother-in-law, the cause of most of the problems Seal encounters.  Sarah Wright, as Seal’s wife, er, Seal, does well with a thin part (a little too forgiving, but their family bond is sweet).

Structuring the film around several periods in Seal’s life allows Liman to tell the story in quite a loose manner, with scenes playing out like vignettes rather then connected narrative tissue: Seal’s struggle to take off in a cocaine-loaded plane on a crappy runway is brilliant; his endeavours to stow his money echoes Scorsese at his most playful; his escapes from DEA aeroplanes are fun, OTT moments.

Seal’s fate, whether you know it already or not, is inevitable towards the end of the film.  It could make for a dour ending but Liman doesn’t allow it.  More acknowledgement of legend than melancholy finale, you leave the cinema feeling like you’ve seen something so daft it couldn’t have really happened, but you’ve really enjoyed watching it happen.

And I suppose that’s the real American… meaning here, particularly these days: superlatively silly, and uniquely implausible.  And some examples turn out much better than others.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Mission: Imposspielberg Vol. 9 - Assassins and Ants

After a few consecutive films of fluff and fun, Spielberg’s next move was to tell another serious story with Munich.  Based on the book Vengeance it tells the story of actions taken by Mossad in the wake of the tragic murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Eric Bana’s Avner leads a team of disavowed agents to exact bloody revenge on the architects of the massacre, operating under no flag and with constant paranoia biting their heels.  I don’t fully understand them, and won’t pretend to for an article about films, so I won’t get into the politics of the situation, but Spielberg’s overall point seems to be that piling wrong after wrong will never make right.  He certainly doesn’t put an argument forward for Palestine, but at no point is Israel made to look heroic.

Spielberg does a fine job of maintaining paranoia throughout: Matheiu Alamric’s smirking informant’s loyalties and intensions are never clear, particularly when Avner befriends his father; there are tensions within the team, who are thrown together (from the world’s finest character actors) and don’t entirely trust one another; there are opposing layers of espionage at work, best exemplified when CIA spooks interrupt a rain-drenched hit; and the whole film has an air of sweaty intensity.  A weather reporter would describe Munich’s atmosphere as ‘close’.

Bana does fine work as the troubled Avner.  Not an Israeli by birth, his mission troubles him but he shows remarkable persistence, yet he fears for his family’s safety from all sides.  Moving from Jerusalem to New York, Avner voices the film’s theme of the importance of home, but also rejects the idea that his actions were in any way heroic.  Spielberg’s broken family motif is two-fold: Avner is an absentee father during his mission, but also struggling to hold together his team, which consists of Daniel Craig’s hot headed driver, Ciaran Hinds’ frustrated clean up guy and Mathieu Kassovitz’ nervous demolitions man, who may or may not have messed up one of the hits.

Munich displays a rare Spielberg feat: he doesn’t spoon feed you the answers.  Several characters have murky motivations, governments more so, with none portrayed as a good guy (the CIA is implied to be doing business with a known terrorist), and you are never given a moral absolute to follow.  Even the team, seeking revenge for crimes against Israel, question their motivations at times, and the absolute fruitlessness of their endeavours is laid bare when it is revealed that for every person they kill, somebody worse takes their place.  The one answer he gives, subtly presented in what is probably his best, most restrained ending, is that violence does not solve anything.  One of my favourite Spielberg films, just not one I want to watch very often.

Now to one I want to watch even less.  I’ll admit to being less than excited when I heard that Spielberg was to revisit his most enduring character with 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, but I was still eager to see it.  In the ensuing 9 years I had not watched it again, and there are very good reasons for this.

It’s an absolutely terrible film, with very few redeeming features, and one which merrily craps on not only my childhood but the legacy of three fine films.  Firstly, the title is bloody awful.  Where the others conjured images of adventure and danger, Crystal Skull is grandiose and doesn’t really conjure anything.

With an embarrassed-looking Harrison Ford spouting terrible dialogue, mostly exposition, where he used to fire off zingers, this lacks everything which made the others so good.  The villains are a major problem: it’s a given that Nazis were terrible and worthy of a punch, and a human sacrifice cult, while pissing off all of India, was also suitably horrible.  1950s Communists just don’t carry the same level of threat (eugenics and genocide vs. public ownership of the means of production; there’s really no comparison), and Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko’s is an awful waste of her talents.  Ray Winstone’s character is a waste of space: constantly changing sides for no apparent reason and using the worst cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke (I honestly don’t care whether it’s his own accent or not, but it’s awful).

Indy’s sidekicks give Temple Of Doom’s Short Round a run for his money as the most annoying in film history.  Shia LeBeouf’s Marlon-Brando-in-The Wild One cliché is worst of the lot, apparently only there to do the stunts that Harrison Ford looks too old for (which was all of them).  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for John Hurt, whose Professor Oxley seems to be a joke at the expense of the mentally ill.  In the hands of a lesser actor, you’d be able to see the embarrassment more clearly.  Only Karen Allen comes away with any credit, spitting smiley sass at Indy as only she can.  It’s a Spielberg archetype fractured family unit, but could do with a few more clean breaks.

The set pieces are weak: a needless bike chase through a university, a jungle-set escape with too-obvious Tarzan noises, some easily-evaded tribal chase guff.  There is no insane mine car chase, no bonkers tank-top fistfight.  And the Indiana Jones trademark of big scary animals is fluffed, too: after spiders, snakes, millions of bugs, and rats (all real animals), carnivorous CGI ants just don’t cut it.  Most problems the characters encounter seem to be resolved by pointing a glittery skull at them.

David Koepp’s script and Spielberg’s ‘it’ll do’ direction are particularly weak.  Much of it looks and feels cheap, from the opening CGI gopher (fucking why!?!) and obvious greenscreen sky, to the weird spinny alien nonsense that ruins the climax.  The quasi-religious Macguffins of the previous films are much more effective than some sub X-Files alien bollocks, which are just harder to care about and carry and ill-established threat.  Worst of all, is how it wipes its arse with the legacy of a great character: every time John Williams’ classic theme pops up on the soundtrack, it seems to accompany a weak nod to the original films (a breeze running through a spider web-filled tunnel, the retrieval of a hat, the Ark Of The Covenant now used as a cheap punch line).

This film is irredeemably awful, probably Spielberg’s worst (including 1941), and succeeds only in wasting two hours and forever tarnishing my childhood.  Worst of all: they’re apparently working on no. 5.

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.