Thursday, August 11, 2016

SUICIDE SQUAD


Short take - Nice one DC Comics, with Suicide Squad you've now made the two most unwatchable films of the year. And you've hired the same team to make the sequel in what I can only assume is a conceptual art installation of irony. Let's cut the crap and just take a hundred million dollars and burn it on the sidewalk outside the Mann Chinese Theatre. At least we could get the side benefit of toasting some marshmallows. Just back away from the movie camera. Now.

Considered review - SUICIDE SQUAD comes on the heels of DC Comics attempts to establish a movie franchise analogous to Marvel's, where individual character movies alternate with ensemble pieces, each of which adds to the greater mythos.  The relaunch began with this year's dull-as-dishwater BATMAN VS SUPERMAN flop, and continues its disastrous run with this new ensemble piece.  The plot picks up from BvS with a world mourning the death of Superman and wary of the rise of "metahumans".  Accordingly, a government official decides to band together a bunch of both super-creatures and just insane people, and offer them time off their sentences if they'll help keep America safe.  But, in the manner of Nolan's Batman films, and basically every other superhero movie, supply creates its own demand, and the very people meant to make America safe contain within their host, one who'll destroy the earth.  What we should get from all this is a kind of DEADPOOL meets THE AVENGERS in which its the bad guys who band together to hunt down other bad guys. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

JASON BOURNE



Matt Damon is back in the fourth episode of this grungy spy thriller franchise inspired by the Robert Ludlum novels. The film is decent, if not spectacular and whetted my appetite for the next phase in the series.

JASON BOURNE can be split into four parts, shot in Athens, Berlin, London and Las Vegas.  In the opening segment, ex CIA-agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks the CIA and delivers the Black Ops files to Bourne under the camouflage of an anti-austerity riot in Athens. This is director Paul Greengrass' way of injecting some social relevance to the movie, although the post-Edward Snowden privacy vs security debate is far more relevant to the Bourne world than the anti-austerity debate.  Regardless, my putting the obligatory chase scene in a city torn apart by molotov cocktails we get some truly breathtaking visuals and cinematography. In fact, this may be my all-time favourite Bourne chase-scene. 

In the second part of the film we follow Bourne to Berlin where he gets a Snowden like hacker to open up the files so that he can learn the dirty secret at the heart of the Black Ops programme that recruited him. I'll resist saying more for fear of spoilers. But what we're really setting up here is the relationship between Bourne and Heather Lee - a CIA IT specialist played by Alicia Vikander. The  key point is that while CIA Chief Dewey (played by Tommy Lee Jones) just wants to have Bourne assassinated, Lee thinks she can bring him in from his life of bare-knuckle boxing (I kid you not).

Heather gets her chance in the third part of the movie we head to London where Bourne wants to interrogate the private sector IT chief that worked for his father and surveilled Bourne.  I felt this was less impressive because the locale - Paddington Basin - is architecturally pretty anonymous - and the characters aren't really pushed forward.  Moreover, the character of the security guy is pretty banal and has very little to do.

All of which brings us to Las Vegas and the final showdown between Bourne and "the Asset" - Vincent Kassel's killing machine, ordered by Dewey to take out Bourne, not to mention a hugely famous internet boss (Aaron Kalloor) who's threatening to expose the CIA's plans for mass surveillance. This was the section of the film I disliked most. It lacked the kinetic brilliance of the Athens sequence, and the chase scene through the streets of Las Vegas was way too long, and flipped into absurdity.  This was odd from a franchise that has prided itself on authenticity. After all, Bourne  isn't Bond.  He doesn't drive an Astin Martin and fall into jet planes, but takes public transport and wears a shabby leather jacket.  So the Bond-esque insanity of that final chase scene just  left me cold.

Overall, the movie is a perfectly fine addition to the franchise. It opens very strong and whimpers out, but provides perfectly good action-entertainment with enough social activism to make us all feel a little smug when we leave the cinema. I like the idea of spending time with a mentally traumtatised and conflicted Jason Bourne who barely speaks.  I also liked the ambiguity of the two younger characters introduced in this film - Heather and Aaron.  Indeed, Heather was starting to annoy me with her classic "one look at Bourne and I melt, betraying the agency" vibe, but she turned out to be far more interesting than that.  The problem is perhaps that we don't get the pay-off of how the moral decisions taken by these two are going to fully manifest. This film is clearly setting us up for the next movie which I suspect will be the better film for having fully rounded characters interact.  So JASON BOURNE is fine for now, but suffers a little for being both closure for the first set of films, and set-up for the second. 

JASON BOURNE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 123 minutes. The movie is on global release.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

BORN TO BE BLUE


Chet Baker - mellifluous crooner and first-rate jazz trumpeter - grew up in the shadow of Miles Davis and his West Coast distance from the cool jazz scene of New York.  In this new fake-fiction biopic, Ethan Hawke plays him as endlessly charming but vulnerable, most of all to Davis' harsh note that he needed to go away and experience life to be truly great.  And per Robert Budreau's inventive but ultimately psychologically reductive script, Baker decided not just to emulate Davis' playing but what he perceived to be the secret to that greatness - being high.  And so our hero becomes a junkie, to the point where drug-dealers break his jaw and destroy his ability to play. That's the tragic irony of his life - a drug fiend so addled that he destroys the very physical ability to play because he thinks the drugs make him play better. This is the dramatic set-piece finale of the film.  Baker finally cleans himself up and teaches himself how to play again, and his promoter finally let's him play one night at the hottest jazz venue in town, in front of all-time greats such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.  But Baker gets nervous, injects heroine and falls right of the wagon. And that's where he stayed up until his death.  The price of the addiction, according to this movie, is the loss of love - depicted here by Carmen Ejogo as the composite lover who walks out on him.

There's a lot to love in this imaginative and free-wheeling depiction of Baker's life.  Budreau's fictionalized interpretation hits the relevant emotional markers without getting too hung up on the actual historical record.  To that end, it's a little like jazz improvisation. In addition Budreau actually takes us behind the camera lens to the see the actors discuss Chet's motives, which feels fun and daring but actually makes the reductive psychology even worse.   That said, I really loved the twin performances on which this movie rests. They just feel right.  Hawke may not sound or look that much like Chet - way to well-built and could anyone really imitate that unique singing voice? - but something about his eager-to-please, wounded look just feels right.

Ultimately, I guess, the best Chet Baker film remains Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary LET'S GET LOST, (my review can be found here).  But this is a worthy fictionalized counter-piece. 

BORN TO BE BLUE has a running time of 97 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Toronto 2015 and SXSW 2016 and opened earlier this year in the US and Canada. It is available in the UK on streaming services and will open in Japan on November 26th.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

WIENER


For many people living outside the US, or even New York, our first introduction to Congressman Anthony Wiener was when he accidentally tweeted a picture of his bulging underpants to the masses, placing his apparently glittering political career in jeopardy. This prompted much juvenile giggling on account of his name.  Later, vaguely, one recollects him running for Mayor before yet another sexting scandal brings him down in flames.  Again, it's easy to mock - and mock the late night TV talk shows did.  How could someone so bright, so politically savvy, do something so ridiculously stupid not once, but twice?  But until this fascinating documentary was released, I'd never paused to really interrogate the man's psyche or to count the deep toll it took on his family and political supporters.

The directors - Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg - were invited by Wiener to document his run for mayor once the dust had settled on the initial scandal. He's firmly marketing himself as a transformed man, and central to that is his beautiful and intelligent wife Huma Abedin - herself a top political aide to Hillary Clinton - and their cute young son.  The cameras are granted hugely intimate access of the couple raising funds, on the campaign trail, committed to their marriage, and refusing to let a moment's madness deny the country of a passionate advocate for the underdog. And certainly, the video footage of Wiener pugnaciously defending Obamacare and other progressive causes in Congress and on TV, you get the feeling that, yes, let's do this.

PREMIERE aka ONE NIGHT IN PARIS (1938)

ONE NIGHT IN PARIS is the British remake of the Austrian film PREMIERE.  Not only does it borrow that film's title, characters, plot and music, but it also uses shots straight from its negative!  After all, mounting big Busby Berkeley style show-numbers on such a lavish scale required efficiency. The play is set in a then-contemporary Parisian theatre on the opening night of a new musical play.  Judy Kelly stars as the star, Carmen Daviot (although the long shots of her singing, and indeed the voice, come from the original actress and a new English language singer respectively!).  As the movie opens, she's fending off the advances of the theatre producer who sacked the incumbent actress Lydia Lavalle (Joan Marion) to get her the part.  Carmen is also dealing with the jealousy o fher ex-lover and co-star Rene Nissen (Hugh Williams) - an actor who is promptly sacked by the producer and while stopping the jilted actress from shooting him, admits it would be no loss if she had. So, motives abound, and as the stage show gets into a big song-and-dance number set in a speakeasy, with shots fired, so the impresario is killed. Luckily for us, Inspector Bonnard (John Lodge) is in the audience, complete with a buffoonish Captain-Hastings-like side-kick, ready to solve the mystery.  The actors are interrogated as the show goes on, complete with a re-staging of the assassination during the interval.

The resulting film holds up well.  It looks handsome, the costumes are lavish, as are the song-and-dance numbers. Okay, it looks odd to see our leading lady in a long shot clearly mouthing lyrics in another language to the sound-track but other than that one is never brought out of the film. And if the mystery plot is solved in a rather convenient manner, there's some satisfaction in the tricks that bring about the final deduction, and fans of murder mystery will enjoy it. And despite the style of acting that can appear stilted to modern eyes, I discerned some genuine emotion in the lead actors and was emotionally engaged in knowing what happened next.

PREMIERE has a running time of 71 minutes and was rated A by the then British censor.

MAGGIE'S PLAN


MAGGIE'S PLAN is a delightful film that where's it's profundity lightly.  Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, based on an unpublished story by Karen Rinaldi, it's basically a film that what happens after you marry the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl.  That's the whimsical, pretty young woman that exists in many modern romantic comedies to allow the sad, depressed, trapped male hero to escape into a better happier world once the credits rolls.  These poor girls - often played by through the ages by actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Aniston, Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman or Cara Delevigne - don't really have an interior life of their own, or any kind of aims for their own life beyond rescuing their beloved men.  This has been somewhat grating for female viewers, and presumably for the actresses themselves.

And so we get the wonderful Greta Gerwig - who has played plenty of these supremely capable fixers of broken men and women  in her time - as the lead character in this amazing film.  She plays Maggie - a loving and lovely woman who decides she wants to have a baby despite not having a boyfriend.  She gets an old college friend called Guy (Travis Fimmel) to be a sperm donor, but on the night she's going to do the deed ends up shagging a married college professor called John (Ethan Hawke) instead.  Long story short, she decides to rescue him from his apparently horrendous high-maintenatnce super-successful wife (Julianne Moore), and they have a kid together.  At this point the conventional rom-com ends.