Sunday 31 May 2015

Age of Ultron by Joss Whedon

I'm a considerable fan of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my favourite TV series, and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, an unforgettablly transgressive genre classic. 

A few years ago Whedon wrote and directed the first Avengers film (entitled Avengers Assemble in the UK to avoid confusion with TV's wonderful The Avengers). That film was a personal favourite of mine, and possibly the greatest comic book movie of all time.

Now Whedon has written and directed the sequel, with the unwieldy and uninviting title The Avengers: Age of Ultron (I've seen the movie and I still couldn't tell you who or what 'Ultron' is... at a guess, the bad guy). Whereas the first Avengers was a magnificent movie, this one is — at best — sort of okay.

Whedon's gift for witty and pointed dialogue is still in evidence, but his ability to assemble (no pun intended) a drama seems to have abandoned him. Age of Ultron has acres of plot but no story. In other words, there's lots of incidents but none of them amount to anything emotionally or intellectually. 

There's also some careless construction. The Scarlet Witch (no relation to Johansson) is set up as possessing the ability to psychically influence people's thoughts — to get inside their head and monkey with their minds. But late in the movie she is suddenly revealed to also have major telekinetic powers (as in Carrie — or more especially The Fury) where she picks up buses and stuff like that. Yup, with her thoughts. 

This isn't established or even hinted at earlier, so  it comes across as abrupt, baffling and unconvincing. Perhaps people familiar with the comic character can take it in their stride, but for anyone else it's likely to be a disruptive surprise and an annoying distraction. Always avoid sloppy writing, folks. It jolts the audience out of that dream state we aspire to create.

But Joss Whedon also has a substantial talent for characterisation and this is still somewhat in evidence here, most notably in the relationship between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). 

There is genuine chemistry between these two and the possibilty they might kiss provides what little suspense there is in the film. Best of all are the tender moments where the Widow calms the Hulk and gets him to revert to human form. In the dialogue this is described as singing him a lullabye. But actually all she does is wordlessly and gently caress his giant green hand. It's a touching and effective moment.

The film also wakes up towards the end with the uprooting of a city and an unexpected rescue mission. But by then it's too little (or perhaps too much) too late. There are some other incidental pleasures to be had. The ever-excellent Elizabeth Olsen is on board now, though saddled with a silly Eastern European accent as the aforementioned Scarlet Witch. And Paul Bettany, who has always been under-utilised in the Iron Man movies as a bodiless voice has now been cleverly upgraded to a proper onscreen presence as The Vision — one of Marvel's most visually interesting superheros with his red face and green costume.

Also, there is the splendid casting of James Spader as the voice of Ultron, the bad guy (I checked).

No pipsqueak post by me in my little blog is going to stop Age of Ultron steam-rollering (is that a verb?) through the multiplexes as a monster summer hit, but I do want to go on record as saying that this is the most disappointing sequel since the second Matrix movie.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 24 May 2015

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

I read my first  Sue Grafton novel, Q is for Quarry, a few months ago. I was pleased to have discovered an excellent series of detective stories, with a whole alphabet full of books to enjoy. T is for Trespass is another Kinsey Millhone adventure, and I suspect a particularly outstanding one because it features a memorably malevolent villain, and because Kinsey Millhone is personally involved in the mayhem — it's not just a case for her.

Kinsey is a very appealing character. She's no glamour puss or superhero; she struggles to maintain her appearance, she's addicted to junk food, constantly tries to force herself to go for her morning run and doesn't always succeed. 

But she is absolutely meticulous where her work is concerned, scrupulously typing up her notes while they're fresh in her mind. The books are set in the 1980s, so Kinsey uses a manual typewriter — indeed, in some senses, a typewriter is her chosen weapon (though she owns several guns, and can use them if compelled to).

Sue Grafton is great — and unusual in my experience — in her coverage of the very mundane activities of private investigators. Kinsey spends a large portion of the novel working on an insurance investigation and serving an eviction notice. And Grafton makes this stuff interesting. Fascinating, in fact. 

But T is for Trespass is mostly concerned with a woman calling herself Solana Rojas. She practises identity theft and is currently passing herself off as a qualified nurse. Her scam is to get a job looking after vulnerable, elderly people, asset-strip them and, once they've been picked clean, bump them off. Solana is a really nasty piece of work. 

And when Kinsey's frail elderly neighbour takes a fall — requiring hospitalisation and then home care — Solana and our hero are on a collision course. But the reader only gradually realises this. The injured neighbour doesn't seem to be a major plot point at first; lots of domestic background is normal in a Kinsey Millhone novel. So we see Solana in action, and we follow the story of the elderly neighbour, without at first seeing how they will link up.  And it's a wonderful feeling when the two plotlines begin to converge.

T is for Trespass is very different to Q is for Quarry. That earlier novel was told entirely from Kinsey's point of view and was a straightforward police procedural, very low-key. This one is a diabolically gripping suspense thriller (we know what Solana is up to long before Kinsey does), it intercuts between Solana and Kinsey, and it builds to a major action climax. In fact, it builds to two major action climaxes. Which is one of the flaws of the book. I bought the first big setpiece violent confrontation. But when the second one came along, despite being logical in terms of the plot, it just seemed too much. Too overblown. Too Hollywood. Part of the strength of the Kinsey Millhone novels is their sense of everyday reality, and that got lost here.

A worse flaw was the way, late in the story, that Kinsey and her helper suddenly knew every detail of a conversation that Solana had at a bank. They weren't present for the conversation or otherwise privy to it. This is a major hole in the plot. There is a way they could have found out — a phonecall from another character. But such a phonecall never takes place. I suspect Sue Grafton planned to write that scene, but just forgot. Which is where an editor comes in — or should come in. A good editor would spot this sort of thing. The fact that such a major error slipped through into print is rather disgraceful. The poor readers end up combing back through the book to see if they missed something. It somewhat muffles the impact of the climax.

These concerns aside, T is for Trespass is terrific. Grafton's writing is as vivid as ever. "I felt a hot rush of pain as though the injury were mine," says Kinsey when she sees the injuries her neighbour has received. And the landscape is once again strikingly evoked. "Some miles out, the channel islands were laid against the horizon in a dark, ragged line." And her gift for sardonic observation is keen as ever: "Offshore the oil rigs twinkled like a regatta with the capacity for spills." Or this description of a slob in front of the TV: "he had a beer balanced on the arm of the chair and an open bag of potato chips resting against his thigh like a faithful hound."

Three cheers for Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone.
(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 17 May 2015

Child 44 by Espinosa and Price

Buried somewhere in this glum mess of a movie is the wreckage of a potentially gripping homicide procedural. 

Child 44 was a bestselling novel by Tom Rob Smith. It's described in a quote on the cover as one of the hundred best thrillers of all time, and I'm willing to believe it might be. Sadly its screen incarnation isn't going to be among the best of anything.

Child 44 it is a crime story set in Stalinist Russia — sort of a 1950s Gorky Park — and the movie adaptation has a theoretically distinguished pedigree. It stars the great Tom Hardy among other excellent actors, it's produced by Ridley Scott... 

Most importantly it has a script by Richard Price, a distinguished American novelist (The Wanderers) turned screenwriter (Sea of Love). I actually used Price's book (Four Screenplays) as a text when I was teaching screenwriting. He's deft, accomplished and knowledgeable.

And the premise of Child 44 is rather brilliant. In the putative paradise of Stalin's Soviet Union, murder cannot exist — it's a disease of the decadent West. So when an honest cop has to try and stop an evil child killer, the odds are really stacked against him.

So... great set up, great cast, great screenwriter. What could go wrong? At first, nothing. The film begins strongly, setting up our hero Leo Demidov (Hardy) and his experiences in World War 2, and neatly delineating his fellow soldiers, his loyal buddy Alexei (Fares Fares) and his cowardly, evil nemesis Vasili (Joel Kinnaman — excellent in the recent Robocop remake). 

We then cut to the the 1950s. Leo is now a war hero and Alexei and Vasili are fellow officers in the MGB, the state police.

And Leo is married to Raisa, played by the delightful Noomi Rapace, in a blonde wig. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace were also a couple in the terrific recent New York crime movie The Drop

Unfortunately, reuniting them here proves to be a mistake — because The Drop was an impressively effective film which knew exactly what it was doing. And Child 44 suffers terribly by comparison.

Because Child 44 never has a clue where it is going. It should be straightforward enough. It should tell the story of Leo's attempt to track down and stop a monstrous child murderer, struggling against the brutal and suffocating Stalinist system which hobbles him. It should be a police procedural, a mystery thriller. And occasionally — very occasionally — it is.

But for most of its running time, Child 44 can't make up its mind about what story to tell. Is it about Leo's troubled marriage (we know it's troubled because when they're banging in bed, Raisa stares unhappily off into space)? Is it about Leo's career problems? Is it a diatribe about the enormous evil of Stalin's USSR?

Sadly, yes, it is about all of those things, and the investigation of the murder is sidelined and minimised, then suddenly remembered towards the end of the film and hastily crammed into a really rushed and unsatisfying conclusion. Did you glean how the killer, who works in a factory, acquired the surgical skills which were supposed to be so critical in identifying his victims, and tracking him down? I must have missed that.

The movie reaches its climax with Leo and Vasili — and even Raisa — rolling around wrestling in the mud. Which is appropriate, because the whole movie has sort of rolled around in the mud. It's a confused mess.

I could go on about the Russian accents adopted by the British and American cast — distracting, silly and above all unnecessary (they are after all, speaking dialogue in English, not Russian, so in that sense authenticity is a horse that's already bolted).

However Child 44 has much bigger problems, all of them fatal. I'll have to read the novel to find out if some of them originated there. But if the book is as strong as it is reputed to be, then its hard to understand why a screenwriter as talented as Richard Price could have made a shambles of solid source material. Maybe the director, Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) interfered with the script. Maybe Ridley Scott interfered with the script (it's certainly been known to happen).

But for now, the only real mystery here is why Child 44 is such a misfire.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 10 May 2015

Monsters: Dark Continent

This movie was so bad I wasn't going to dignify it with a post, but I felt I had to get my feelings off my chest — and warn you about it. 

How could a movie about soldiers versus monsters not at least be entertaining? Well, let's take a look...

The problems begin with the title. Besides being incipiently racist, what the hell continent are they talking about here? The movie is set in the Middle East, which isn't a continent... so maybe Asia?

The first Monsters movie was intriguing. It was written and directed by Gareth Edwards who went on to direct Godzilla — a film which suffered from fatal script problems, though not so fatal or problematical as the ones which beset Dark Continent. 
The original Monsters was an interesting curiosity. It dealt with the invasion of giant monsters from space, but in a fairly novel and inventive (and low budget) way.

The alien onslaught was seen from the point of view of some American tourists in Central America, and how it affected them. The crisis was treated just like a tsunami or earthquake or volcanic eruption. The eponymous monsters were mostly glimpsed in the distance, as towering figures striding the horizon. The heroes didn't have much interaction with them... the film was a realistic treatment of the experience of ordinary, everyday people coping with a global disaster.

Well, Monsters was a success so here is the sequel, directed by Tom Green, a British TV director and co-written by Green with Jay Basu, another Brit who was among the writers on the excellent movie Fast Girls. 

And they seem to have adopted the same strategy as with Alien and Aliens... the first movie dealt with civilians under threat, so this time let's make it the military instead. In the case of Aliens, that was a brilliant notion. And for a while it seems promising here, too.

But Dark Continent is a poorly conceived and pretentious film which fails completely. The fatal mistake is the idea that the soldiers aren't really going to fight the monsters. They're sent to the middle East to combat human insurgents who are attacking US troops in the course of their battle against the aliens. The insurgents are pissed off at the collateral damage created by the American bombing of the monsters.

The logic of this is nonsensical. For a start, people would tend to get out of the way of giant lumbering monsters who are attacking their town, which considerably reduces the number of collateral casualties. Plus they'd actually tend to be grateful to people blowing up said monsters with bombs from the air. 

In fact, there is a thriving sub genre of science fiction about how a divided and warring humanity buries its differences and unites in the face of an alien invasion. Famous examples include several stories by Theodore Sturgeon, most notably  'Unite and Conquer'; an episode of The Outer Limits entitled The Architects of Fear by Meyer Dolinsky; the novel Wild Card by Raymond Hawkey and Roger Bingham; and most recently Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. All of these stories have got human psychology correct. Monsters: Dark Continent has got it exactly arse-backwards.

But let's assume for a moment that the movie's ridiculous premise holds water...

You still wouldn't need ground troops to fight the insurgents. Your strategy is to bomb the monsters from the air. At the most you'd need some strongly fortified airbases. You wouldn't need to get out in the countryside at all. But forget logic, this movie completely has its head up its ass. For some reason Green and Basu seem determined to make a very familiar and clichéd war story about American soldiers fighting in a conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan. With some monsters. Or, as it turns out, not...

Dark Continent is basically an inferior clone of American Sniper, Hurt Locker and any number of other recent Middle East war films. It might have worked if the troops actually engaged with the monsters. But they don't. They're busy shooting local insurgents in exactly the same old boring fashion as all those other movies.  Occasionally we glimpse an irrelevant alien monster lumbering by in the background, but that's about it...

The concept that was so effective in the first movie... monsters at a distance, no interaction... is a whopping mistake here. And in the first film it was dictated by the tiny budget. Here, in a lavish sequel, there are no such financial constraints. It just makes no sense. 

It also means Dark Continent is just a mediocre Middle East war movie like any other, with some tacked on CGI footage of the monsters. Indeed, it's possible to believe the script existed without the monsters, and they just cut and pasted them in.

The movie would work better if you took the monsters out. But even then it would be pretty poor stuff, because the film makers don't bother to create any sympathy for their military characters. The troops are just an undifferentiated bunch of cardboard cut-outs... except for the guy whose wife has just had a baby, so of course he's going to die tragically. (Don't these people know how much of a cliché that is?)

There are some effective scenes early on, when the blue collar soldiers are partying in Detroit before they go to war. And at the end of the movie it seems for a tantalising moment that Dark Continent might turn into a documentary about the lifestyle of nomadic people (which would have been welcome... anything is better than the farago that is set before us here), but for most of its running time it's a complete failure. And terribly dull, despite all the blazing combat (if we don't care about the characters, action is just tedious mayhem, chaps).

I couldn't work out how anyone could have made a film so ill conceived and unnecessarily bad. What did they think they were doing? Then it hit me. The filmmakers thought they were making a powerful and artistic statement about the horrors of war. And that adding the monsters in the background would make it more powerful and more artistic.

Wrong, wrong, wrong...

(Image credits: The main (official) poster is from Imp Awards. The orange and brown official poster with the helicopter is from Image 12. The tormented face poster by Daniel Nash is from the Geeky Nerfherder. The blue poster by Marko Manev, the gunsight poster by Orlando Arocena and the sandy brown poster by Paul Shipper (which calls to mind John Schoenherr's desert art for Dune) are all from Inside the Rock Poster Frame. The black and white posters are from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 3 May 2015

The Salvation by Levring & Jensen

A Danish Western made in South Africa sounds like a recipe for a disaster. In fact it turns out to be a recipe for a masterpiece. 

What's more, it's evident from the first few seconds that The Salvation is going to be a winner. As soon as we get a glimpse of Mads Mikkelsen (so terrific in Hannibal and Charlie Countryman) it's obvious that this movie is going to work — he looks perfect for the hero of a Spaghetti Western.

The Salvation is a harrowing revenge story. It's also a magnificent film and a classic western, one of the two or three best in the genre in the last twenty years. It had begun to look like the Western was a lost art form. (Although The Homesman was an excellent film, for my money it wasn't really a Western.) 

And it seemed that Hollywood could turn out nothing but disappointing near-misses like The Missing and duds like Open Range or 3.10 to Yuma (a remake of an Elmore Leonard classic that falls to pieces spectacularly). Or — god help us — The Lone Ranger. Indeed, one of the few decent examples in recent times was Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. Despite being an hilarious deconstruction of movie cliches, it was also a proper specimen of the genre and beautifully photographed to boot, with a good music score.

But now comes The Salvation, a title with an unintended (?) extra layer of meaning in terms of the fate of a whole movie genre. I was going to say that this film has single-handedly revived the Spaghetti Western — with immense skill and style. 

But on reflection I'm forced to concede that Tarrantino's Django Unchained — which is certainly intended as a Spaghetti Western, indeed the Spaghetti Western to end all Spaghetti Westerns — beat the Danish film makers to the punch.

But Django Unchained was so post-modern it hardly seemed like a Western. The Salvation is a much more pure and serious example of the genre. It is also one of the most gorgeously photographed films I've ever seen, thanks to cinematographer Jens Schlosser. The sequence of a stage coach ride at night, with the vehicle lit inside by butter yellow oil lamps and a deep blue sky outside, was ravishingly beautiful.

The film is splendidly directed by Kristian Levring whose last feature was a Danish thriller called Fear Me Not and superbly written by Levring in collaboration with Anders Thomas Jensen (who previously worked on Fear Me Not and the Kiera Knightley vehicle The Duchess).

What is really impressive is how these Danish guys have written not only a script in English, but one which is idiomatically and authentically a period piece. This may not be exactly how people spoke in the old West, but it was certainly adequately convincing to fool me.

It tells the story of Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), an ex-soldier, who is brutally bereaved and left to avenge himself against the evil Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his colourful band of robbers, including the French football star Eric Cantona. Of no help to Jon are the local townspeople, including the slimy local mayor and undertaker (an excellent Jonathan Pryce) and the spineless hypcritical local parson and sheriff (Dougie Henshall, another fine British actor).

It's a great cast, but besides Mads Mikkelsen the other real knock out is Eva Green as Madeleine or 'Princess', apparently one of the bad guys — but it's not that simple. 

The Princess bears an Indian tattoo on her face, from the tribe who cut out her tongue. She is of course mute, and spends the whole movie silent. But if you think that limits the possibilities of her performance, you'd be wrong. Eva Green delivers an astonishing performance, using just her eyes to convey profoundly affecting emotions. She is brilliant, and her performance is a reminder of the lost power of silent cinema.

I should also mention a fine music score by Kasper Winding (who did the music for a recent British drama The Riot Club) and the breathtaking location photography in South Africa (which also serves so well in the pirate series Black Sails).

The Salvation is great movie, one of the best of the year, and an instant classic. The only false note in it is a character named Mallick, which struck me as an unnecessarily knowing reference to Terence Mallick, a film maker and a brilliant purveyor of quasi-Westerns such as Badlands, Days of Heaven and Pocket Money. On the other hand, there is another character called One Eyed Jack which is a great Western movie reference.

(Image credits: The main poster ('Bad Men Will Bleed') is from Vortex Effect. The other posters are from Imp Awards. The clean-cut close up of Mads is from Mongrel Media. The scar faced close up of Mads is from Indie Wire Play List. Eva Green pointing her Winchester at us is from the official movie trailer on You Tube. Mads pointing his Winchester at us is from Fandango Groovers movie blog. Eva sitting looking thoughtful is from Love Heaven 07. Maybe she's reflecting on how brilliant she was in this film.)