Sunday, 23 October 2016

Nerve by Sharzer and Ryan

Nerve gets off to a somewhat wobbly start thanks to its Poochie-esque attempt to be down with the kids. 

At first it’s all computer screens, in the manner of Unfriended or Friend Request, though perhaps with less justification, and pop songs. Tedious, terrible pop songs.

Most of these excesses soon settle down, though the inferior music continues unabated throughout. However… the film itself is actually cleverly plotted and gripping. 

It concerns the eponymous game, which is sort of a truth-or-dare. Though this computer version solely consists of the dares.

I really like the fact that Nerve is contained and small scale, set around Staten Island and New York City, and what is genuinely terrific is the way they smoothly scale up the dares to a dangerous level. 

What begins with kissing a stranger in a diner rapidly escalates to riding a motorcycle with a blindfolded driver at 60mph. 

It's a nice script by Jessica Sharzer, who has written extensively for the TV series American Horror Story. I was intrigued to see that it was based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan

I haven't read the book, but it's perceived purely as young adult fiction in the classic mould, with an isolated teen female protagonist narrating in the first person.

Personally, I saw it as a taut, clever high-concept computer thriller, a kind of descendent of 1997's The Game.  

And it's genuinely, deeply, nail-bitingly suspensful. But then I don't like heights...  (I was amused that the parental advisory at the beginning of the movie warning that it depicts "imitable behaviour". I don't plan to imitate it any time soon.)

It also features lovely colour cinematography by Michael Simmonds.

The cast is led by Emma Roberts playing Vee (for Venus), the classic isolated teen female protagonist. Though she's only isolated for about five minutes. Interestingly Roberts also starred in American Horror Story.

If you see Nerve, be sure and stay for the end titles, which are beautifully designed.

(Image credits: a large selection of posters at Imp Awards, though the "streaking" one is a bit misleading.) 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Mechanic Resurrection by Philip Shelby and Lewis John Carlino

The Mechanic began life as an original script in the seventies by top screenwriter Lewis John Carlino. Its first incarnation was a 1972 version with Charles Bronson as the meticulous professional assassin and Jan-Michael Vincent as his ambitious and ultimately treacherous young apprentice.

In 2011 there was a remake, scripted by Carlino but rewritten by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and starring Jason Statham as our friendly neighbourhood hitman and Ben Foster (so great recently in Hell or High Water) as his AAUTYA.

That film was clearly something of a success because we now have a sequel. Our dour hero is still listening to vinyl. And wastefully blowing up his high end hi-fi with high explosive booby traps. 

The opening sequence of the new movie is just great, though, with a cute female assassin (memorably played by Thai actress and pop singer Yaaying Rhatha Phongam) trying to draw a gun on Statham in a mountaintop bar-and-grill in Rio. 

Bad guys get their face sizzled on the aforementioned grill. Our hero escapes on the roof of a cable car as bullets fly around him, before hitching a ride on a hang glider.

This is a picaresque movie composed of self contained setpieces, most of them centering on the evil arms dealers Statham has been contracted to kill. 

I like the breezy way we jet around the world to beautiful locations. Thailand is particularly striking. 

The logic is for shit, though. The Mechanic is pressured (they’ve kidnapped his love interest Jessica Alba) into undertaking a series of hits which must look like accidents. 

But it turns out there’s no particular reason for them to look like accidents. And he doesn’t try very hard to achieve this anyway. The drilled swimming pool in the sky is a lot of fun, however

There’s also a weird bit where he tries to rescue Jessica from the bad guys, fails, and then courtesy of a fade out and a voice over, he’s back on the job as if nothing happened. I suspect a major re-edit. 

But it doesn't matter, Tommy Lee Jones is sheer joy when he turns up as a hip arms dealer with a soul patch and rose tinted glasses. 

The writing credits for the new film are a bit of a mess — they vary according to where you look, at the poster or on the internet. But some things are clear. Lewis John Carlino is gone, save for a "characters created by" credit.

And Richard Wenk is gone entirely. The main talent involved now is Philip Shelby, who recently wrote the absolutely brilliant Survivor. He's a terrific writer and I'm pleased to see him getting what I hope is a lucrative payday.

The other writers who are credited (depending on where you look) are Tony Mosher and the team of Rachel Long and Brian Pittman.

In any case, despite the tortuous rewrites and re-edits, Mechanic Resurrection is fast-moving, semi-coherent fun and there's the potential here for an inventive, guilty-pleasure pulp franchise.

(Image credits: The Resurrection poster is from Imp Awards. The 2011 Mechanic poster is also from Imp Awards. The 1972 poster is from Amazon.)

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Ben-Hur by John Ridley and Keith Clarke

By remaking one of the great classics of cinema you are "cruising for a bruising" as we used to say, when we were young hoodlums. 

My heart certainly sank when I saw the poster, and the CGI-infested trailer, for the new version of Ben-Hur.

So I'm a little chagrined to report that the movie is way better than I expected. 

Although the two leads, Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbell as Messala Severus, are quite unknown — at least to me — they both turn out to be good actors. 

And I found this remake altogether entertaining, vivid and immersive. The sea battle sequence with galley slave Ben-Hur escaping from a sinking ship is just terrific. And the screenwriters (John Ridley of 12 Years a Slave and Oliver Stone's U-Turn, and Keith Clarke who wrote The Way Back for Peter Weir) have actually done an interesting and imaginative job.

One improvement over the Lew Wallace novel is that the friendship between Ben-Hur and Messala has been built up strongly at the beginning. Since they're going to end up as deadly enemies, this is crucial. And there's a terrific sequence at the start of the film — we begin with the chariot race between Ben and Messala and then do a neat dissolve to them, as young men and friends, racing horses in the desert.

Indeed the movie features some very pretty horses. So I didn’t object to the CGI chariot race, because at least it meant these horses weren’t really getting hurt. (I hope.)
One small weakness of the film is Morgan Freeman in his patented role as Wise Old Man. Much worse is the religious subplot, meretriciously built up to appeal to the American Christian market...

There is some justification for this, though. After all Lew Wallace’s novel, involves a great deal of biblical guff — it's subtitled A Tale of the Christ. 

But the movie really shoots itself in the foot with a scene of a Roman Legionnaire being struck dumb in awe by Jesus’s incredible charisma. This is almost identical to — and almost as hilarious as — a priceless scene in the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar featuring George Clooney. Although in the case of Ben-Hur the humour is utterly unintentional.

Nonetheless, to my considerable surprise, this remake is worth a look.

(Image Credits: Rich pickings at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Before I blog about the new movie of Ben-Hur I thought it would be useful to go back to the source material, a novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace. 

Wallace is an interesting character. He was a Union general in the Civil War and later became governor of New Mexico. 

His love of historical adventure novels by the likes of Alexandre Dumas — especially The Count of Monte Cristo — fed his desire to be a writer himself.

He took his first crack at writing a novel when he was 16. That book wouldn't be published for another 30 years. It dealt with Cortez's subjugation of Mexico. And while it quite well received, it was with his second historical novel that Wallace truly hit the jackpot.

Ben-Hur, like The Count of Monte Cristo, is a novel of a wronged man's revenge. It was an epic set in biblical times, and indeed it pretty much invented the genre of the biblical epic. The book slowly and inexorably began to rack up huge sales.

By end of the 19th Century Ben-Hur had overtaken Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as the best selling American novel of all time. It held that record until Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was published in 1936.

But with the release of the Charlton Heston movie of Ben-Hur in 1959, Lew Wallace's novel once again clawed its way back to the number one slot. These massive sales were always helped along, no doubt, by the heavily Christian elements of the book and the fact that America is a strongly religious country.

I have to confess that this aspect of the book — and the fact that it's five or six hundred pages long and written over a century ago by a yankee general — have so far conspired to prevent me reading it.

But I have listened to this monumental BBC radio adapation, in four 50-minute episodes, expertly dramatised by Catherine Czerkawska. And it really brought home how central the iconic chariot race is to the story.

I mentioned that this is a story of revenge. And it's fascinating that Ben-Hur chooses to get even with his arch enemy Messala by racing him in the arena — planning not just to humiliate him by beating him to the finishing line, but also destroying him financially through betting against him.

This is so much more interesting than the usual sword-wielding gladiatorial confrontation. And what's more, it's true to life, given how fanatical the ancient Romans were about horse races and betting on them.

Plus I also liked the fact that the horses are named after stars... Poetic, and apt given that their Arab owner would have spent his life staring up into the clear desert skies at night.

(Image credits: I ransacked Good Reads, where there are more than 500 editions listed. Oddly enough I couldn't find the lovely Signet Classics white cover there, though. I got that from ABE.)

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Hell or High Water by Taylor Sheridan

Other than its boringly generic title, this is a masterpiece in every regard. The critics are scratching their heads, wondering why it's so great and calling it a "sleeper hit". The reason they are so perplexed, and it's taken them by surprise, is because they can't read down the credits far enough to see who wrote it.

(At least, that's the case with English language critics — dig the French poster which gives full credit to the writer!)

The brilliant screenplay for Hell or High Water is by Taylor Sheridan (sometimes spelled Tayler Sheridan), who was responsible for Sicario, perhaps the finest film of last year. 

(I only say 'perhaps' because that was the same year that Steve Jobs hit the screens, another supreme example of screenwriting.)
Hell or High Water is a gritty crime thriller which tells the story of two 21st Century Texas rangers on the trail of two bank robbers. 

It conjures up shades of W.R. Burnett and features what may well be Jeff Bridges’s best performance ever. The movie delivers on exhilarating action and unbearable suspense.

But where it really scores is characterisation. We gradually discover that the two punks hitting the banks (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are brothers, and then we learn what really motivates them... suddenly the whole film becomes deeper and more powerful. 

(There's a subtle and deeply moving moment where, in a beat up trailer, we see an old black and white photo of the two renegades as gap-toothed, tousle-haired young boys.)

And Sheridan doesn't skimp on the cops, either. The relationship between Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is beautifully developed and moves in a startling direction. This a genre movie which offers us both non-stop excitement and a profound emotional experience. What begins as an Elmore Leonard crime spree ends up as The Last Picture Show.

Come to think of it, this is also the best performance I've ever seen by Chris Pine. Or Ben Foster (whom I last registered in The Mechanic and Contraband). And, although this is a writer-centric blog, full credit must also be given to the director David Mackenzie. 

A Brit, Mackenzie was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, Starred Up, which features a similar aesthetic of realistic, grimy, everyday brutality. There is one sequence in Hell or High Water which is particularly brilliantly staged — a violent encounter at a gas station which is all done in one shot, without any camera moves.

But if I'm going to start talking about individual scenes, we'll be here all day. The whole movie is outstanding.

I was on the edge of my seat for almost the entire picture, my heart in mouth, wondering how it was going to turn out. I can't remember the last time I was so invested in a film — I cared very deeply about what happened. 

And, without giving anything away, I can tell you that the ending is very satisfying indeed.

This is a magnificent movie and I can't recommend it highly enough. Race to the cinema and see it today.

(Image credits: three of the movie posters are from Imp Awards — and that French one will gladden the hearts of writers everywhere. As will the painted one I found on Indie Wire. The poster covered with laudatory quotes — all well earned — is from Flick Direct. That's all folks. For now. Go see the damned movie.)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Lights Out by Heisserer and Sandberg

I see numerous horror movies and they are almost always a big fat disappointment, stuffed with routine, ho-hum, attempts at scaring the audience — loud musical stings or somebody suddenly stepping into frame. 

This happens so much so that I'd begun to wonder if the genre was defunct...

But then last year there was the outstanding The Boy written by Stacey Menear and now we have the excellent Lights Out, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by David Sandberg.

The movie is actually based on a short film made by Sandberg a few years ago, which became an internet sensation. I'm not usually on the memo-list for these things, but as it happens my buddy Keith Temple sent me a link to it.

As I say, the short film had a big impact, but this new feature length chiller is considerably better. It tells the story of Diana, who is deeply disturbed, very dangerous, has a strange pathological sensitivity to light — oh yes, and she’s back from the dead.

The premise is somewhat similar to the Doctor Who story Blink, in which the monsters could get a little closer to you every time you closed your eyes. Here Diana can advance wherever and whenever it's dark.

Lights Out is a horror movie which actually works. It's a gem, and I particularly like it because it sweeps aside the usual clichés. Most films in the genre require the protagonists to behave really stupidly. (Would you go down into that creepy basement all alone, etc?)

But here the characters do all the sensible things to combat Diana — interestingly, this tendency is  present even in the short film. And you know that the point where you think, "Why don't they just call the cops?" Well, in Lights Out they call the cops...

And it doesn't do them any good.

David Sandberg has done an admirable job of expanding his original concept, with the help of Eric Heisserer (who wrote the 2011 remake of The Thing). 

They are greatly assisted by the dazzling colour cinematography of Marc Spicer and the presence of Australian actress Teresa Palmer as Rebecca. In a sense, the movie is all about Palmer's face. She looks great on screen and she can really act. Alexander DiPersia also scores as her likable slacker boyfriend.

And Maria Bello is well cast as Rebecca's mother. She is vulnerable, damaged and ultimately triumphant. 

The movie features some clever use of light sources to drive off the monster and all in all it's a terrific little horror flick. Highly recommended. 
(Image credits: Very slim pickings for posters at Imp Awards. So I've supplemented it with some Teresa Palmer Lights Out Wallpaper and the blue pic from Just Jared and the red one from Movie Web.)

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Jason Bourne by Greengrass & Rouse

Jason Bourne (note the initials, shared with a certain 007) was the creation of bestselling thriller novelist Robert Ludlum (1927-2001). Ludlum wrote a trilogy of novels about his amnesiac secret agent and the first three Bourne movies are nominally based on them. At least, they share the titles.

After Ludlum's death Eric Van Lustbader began writing new novels in the series. There are now ten of these, the first of which was The Bourne Legacy.

This is the title of the best of the Bourne movies to date, as I discussed last week, although the film wasn't based on Lustbader's novel and Jason Bourne isn't even in it...

I also mentioned last week that the two main creative minds behind the Bourne film series are director Paul Greengrass and writer/director Tony Gilroy.  

What happened on Legacy was that Greengrass declared he wasn't intersted in making another Bourne, so star Matt Damon dropped out, too.

But Tony Gilroy just went ahead and made a movie anyway... and a great one... without Bourne and without Damon.

But now it's all change. Greengrass has changed his mind and is back on board, Damon is, too, and — for the first time in the franchise — Gilroy is absent. Instead Greengrass has co-written the screenplay with Christopher Rouse, his film editor on this and many other films.

Greengrass and Rouse have done a competent job. The movie works, and is thrilling and absorbing. But the lack of Gilroy — a truly world class screenwriter — definitely shows. The script has major holes in it... 

Why does Tommy Lee have four of his own agents murdered, when all had to do was call them off with a phone call? And how does Jason Bourne wander into a giant Las Vegas conference hall and immediately spot that there’s a sniper behind a grill in the wall at the back of the room? 

And then there's the annoying fact that everybody speaks in the same way (tersely replying "understood" to barked orders).

But the film's consistently compelling nonetheless, with an end-of -level fight which is much better than usual — actually almost gripping — and a car chase which really is gripping, thanks to the involvement of an armoured SWAT vehicle which ploughs through the cars of innocent bystanders, ripping them to shreds like a giant electric can opener. 

Full marks for revivifying these two tropes which almost always disappoint. And the reappearance of Moby’s song at the end was like having an old friend turn up. 

Plus I love the notion that the CIA keeps its black ops files in a folder labelled “Black Ops”...

Well worth praising is the cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as the big CIA bad guy, and the radiant Alicia Vikander, last seen in a very different spy movie, The Man From UNCLE. Here she is as wonderful as usual, though given precious little to work with. 

My main complaint with Jason Bourne is that nobody smiles during the whole damned film. And, as I said, Tony Gilroy's absence is a mistake. I believe the movie would have been better with his input. 

But still it held my attention from beginning to end. And when I saw it, I thought — as with Star Trek Beyond — Ah, at last here is a summer blockbuster which actually delivers the goods.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.)