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.)

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Bourne Movies by Gilroy, Greengrass et al

With Jason Bourne in the multiplexes I thought it was time for a quick look at the background to this film series...

Up until now I'd been an adherent of the theory that the even-numbered Bourne movies were the ones worth celebrating. The first, The Bourne Identity (2002) was certainly fun, but not to my thinking great,  

But the second, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) was absolutely terrific and even managed to come up with an interesting and exciting variation on that most weary of cinematic clichés — the car chase (in this case, spreading mayhem through the streets of Moscow). 

Number three, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) saw a dip in interest, at least in my interest, although there was a memorably tense sequence in Waterloo Station. But then there was the fourth film, The Bourne Legacy (2012)...

This was in some senses not a Jason Bourne movie at all, making cheeky use of the name in the title, despite introducing an entirely new character, played by Jeremy Renner. Yet it was probably the best of the bunch.

Now, who is responsible for these? Well, the first movie was directed by Doug Liman, but the major creative personalities behind the series have been Paul Greengrass and, above all, Tony Gilroy. 

Greengrass is a former BBC documentary film maker whose work has a powerfully realistic feel. He directed the second and third films, and now the fifth.

Tony Gilroy was a screenwriter on all of the first four films, and also directed the fourth. He is one of the great Hollywood writers and with the excellent Michael Clayton (an unusual sort of legal drama starring George Clooney) he also became a first-rate writer-director.  

In addition, Gilroy wrote The Devil's Advocate, a favourite guilty pleasure of mine, and is currently involved in writing the new Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.

Yet Gilroy isn't involved in this summer's Bourne movie, Jason Bourne... and it's still a winner. And breaks the even-numbered-Bourne rule.

I'll tell you all about it next week. 

(Image credits: all from the very useful Imp Awards — Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum, Legacy.)

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Shallows by Anthony Jaswinski

 In The Shallow a young woman called Nancy is stranded in sight of land, indeed, a mere stroll from the shore, cut off by a relentless shark.  

Nancy is a surfer (the film features some snazzy surfing sequences) in a remote part of Mexico, who finds herself perched on a tiny rocky “island” about the size of a double bed, watching the fin of a great white circling her.

Nancy is played by Blake Lively, who has previously appeared in some superior films including the science fiction oddity The Age of Adaline and Ben Affleck's crime thriller The Town.

One very smart move on the part of Anthony Jaswinski's script is making her a medical student, so she can try and repair the shark bite in her leg in a visceral scene involving earrings and a sharp pendant. Ouch. 

Another smart move was giving Nancy an injured seagull, also stranded, as her companion on her tiny island. When she grabs the seagull, whom she amusingly nicknames “Steven”, I was worried she was going to wring his neck and drink his blood. But no, thank god, she uses her medical knowledge to reset his dislocated wing. 

The seagull is so terrifically engaging, smart and cute, that I thought he must be a computer generated figment. But, holy guano, he's a real bird Sully the Seagull! A star in the making.

The Shallows is a nice little movie and quite suspenseful. Blake Lively is plucky and appealing, and evidently did her own surfing... So is it churlish of me to suggest that our heroine doesn't quite have the star power required for the part? Probably. Nevertheless, Jessica Alba, where are you when we need you? 

The film has striking photography by Flavio Martínez Labiano and is directed by the Barcelonan Jaume Collet-Serra. Now, in these posts I tend to concentrate on the writers rather than the directors — after all, I am a writer myself.

But Collet-Serra has a great track record, including a couple of my favourite movies of recent years, the breathtaking psychological horror flick Orphan and the highly superior Liam Neeson thriller Unknown (Collet-Serra rather specialises in Liam Neeson thrillers, with three to his credit and a fourth in the works).

Writer Jaswinski, perhaps not surprisingly, has some horror films on his CV and here he's turned in a smart, compact, resourceful script... although a couple of times it’s not clear enough about what’s happening. 

Why does Nancy have to abandon her tiny island for the nearby buoy? Evidently because the tide is rising to the point where the island will be entirely underwater. But, as I say, not clear enough. 

Much worse is the oil slick she ignites with a flare gun. Where the hell did that come from? Not the flare gun... that's painstakingly set up. But the goddamn oil slick.

However, much the most lamentable thing about the movie, and one that must be blamed on the director is the insistence on putting images and video from Nancy's phone up on the screen in big floating vignettes. Is this really going to be the convention from now on? 

Nerve frequently did similar things, though with far more justification. If this is going to be a convention, it’s a shitty one because it’s a major distraction and destroys any mood or sense of reality. 

The Shallows also shares with Nerve some wretchedly bland pop music on the soundtrack, though thank heavens there's far less here. And The Shallows does at least have a proper score by the redoubtable Marco Beltrami. 

In the end, despite all caveats, this is a better than average summer thriller and an honourable mention is due. Plus, did I mention the great seagull? 

(Image credits: Posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Star Trek Beyond by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung

Actors who play a recurring role often come to have considerable insights into their characters, and some useful ideas on how to write stories about them. 

After quitting the Bond franchise, Sean Connery was hired to contribute to the script for a maverick 007 feature — though I suspect this was just a foxy feint by the producer to lure him into playing the role again. (It worked: the movie was Never Say Never Again.)

But the principle remains sound, and it also helps in a science fiction franchise if the actor in question is a big genre buff... it means they know things like a starship isn't designed for atmospheric flight. 

Hence Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, the engineer of the Enterprise, has ended up writing not just a serviceable Star Trek script, but a terrific one.

Star Trek Beyond is the best movie in the new series. Or, if you want to be mean about it, the only one worth seeing. 

The film begins with a great visual gag which wouldn't be out of place in any SF franchise, then moves swiftly to an audacious end-of-act catastrophe when the Enterprise is blown to bits and the crew, in escape pods, end up on the surface of a hostile alien planet.

What ensues is a series of subplots making good use of the various protagonists, who have been separated after their disastrous downing. 

The characterisation is better than in the previous movies, and there is some splendid new blood — Jaylah is a wonderful female alien whom Scotty falls in with. (In an Arthur Dent-style misunderstanding she  believes his name is "Montgomery Scotty" and refers to him as this throughout.)

Played by Sofia Boutella (who was the unforgettable amputee assassin Gazelle in Kingsman), Jaylah has bewitching make up, with a black and white face reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear. She has an hilarious moment when she sits down in the captain's chair on the bridge, slouching across it, while Chris Pine's Captain Kirk stares on with pained discomfort.

I also loved the fact that, halfway through, it dawned on me that the heavily made up alien bad guy Krall was actually Idris Elba.

Pegg co-wrote the script with TV writer Doug Jung (Banshee) and some uncredited assistance from the likes of Roberto Orci. Great job. This is the first of the summer blockbusters to really deliver the goods.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards, where there was a rich selection. As you can see, I've really gone to town on Sofia Boutella's posters. Poor Simon Pegg was pretty much unrecognisable on his... Clan of the Cave Bear is from GStatic.) 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The BFG by Roald Dahl and Melissa Mathison

The BFG, as you no doubt know, is a Big Friendly Giant, here incarnated quite brilliantly by Mark Rylance, put through the CGI mill, in a new film directed by Stephen Spielberg and adapted by Melissa Mathison from Roald Dahl's children's novel.

Roald Dahl is a masterful writer and something of a household god of mine for his brilliant, concise, acerbic short stories which are often deeply disturbing and hilarious at the same time. 

They also invariably have a sting in the tail. Allow me to recommend, for a start, 'Lamb to the Slaughter', 'The Great Switcheroo', and 'The Champion of the World'.

But Dahl is more widely known for his kids' fiction, with tens of millions of fans worldwide. So it isn't surprising that his back-catalogue is being busily strip-mined for movie adaptations — all the more so since the writer's death. 

As I discussed in last week's post, Dahl was unhappy with the way his work was treated on screen and blocked film projects during his lifetime. But since his passing there's been something of a goldrush of Roald Dahl children's movies, usually heavy on the special effects because of the fantastic nature of these tales.

The latest of these is The BFG, based on one of Dahl's most beloved works. Sad to report, the movie is likely to be gone from the cinemas by the time you read this. Despite being a Spielberg film it isn't showing much box office mojo and has already tanked in America. 

All this makes sense because, despite its many fine attributes, the movie doesn't work. But before we examine why that is, let's dwell for a moment on those fine attributes...

I already mentioned how terrific Mark Rylance is in a subtle, nuanced performance (playing a CGI giant!). There's also dazzlingly imaginative production design — I love the way the giant uses everyday human objects repurposed to his scale. So, for instance, a red London phone box with its top removed becomes a receptacle for kitchen implements.

Plus the movie has a fine score by John Williams, and there's a captivating cameo by a delightful little ginger cat. And a nice running gag about how there are giants more giant than the BFG... indeed, he's a shrimp by comparison.

But of course, none of this is sufficient to save the movie. One fundamental flaw is that there just isn't enough story... the screenwriter Melissa Mathison is certainly distinguished, and has a laudable grasp of movies for children — she wrote The Black Stallion and ET.

The lack of plot is a major flaw, though. The only real story here is the BFG versus the nasty, bigger giants (who eat children) and how he defeats them with the help of Sophie (named after Dahl's granddaughter), the intrepid little orphan girl he befriends.
 
This isn't enough to fill the movie, and there are long soporific sequences where the BFG and Sophie explore a magical realm together, yawn... (I really did nearly fall asleep during this bit).

And, it has to be said, the character of Sophie, as played by Ruby Barnhill is also a problem. It sounds terribly unkind, but I don't think she's right for the part.  

She's a superb actor. But the viewer just doesn't warm to her, or care about her fate. We don't empathise. Instead we sit there thinking, gosh, that little girl can really act, but feeling quite unmoved by her and her situation.  
 
Oh well, at least The BFG has the best fart scene since Blazing Saddles. It doesn't sound like much, and it isn't exactly the Odessa Steps sequence from the Battleship Potemkin... 

But I do find fond recollections of it almost tempting me to see the film again...

(Image credits: The movie posters are, as usual from the reliable Imp Awards. The book covers ditto from the ditto Good Reads.)