Sunday, 19 February 2017

Split by M. Night Shyamalan

Dear, dear me. My, my, my. What do we make of M. Night Shyamalan?

He came storming onto the scene with a huge hit, The Sixth Sense (I saw the twist coming a mile off), made a couple of interesting films (I like The Village a great deal), plunged into an abyss of mediocrity (I ask you, The Last Airbender?)...

And then he managed to claw his way out of the pit with 2015's excellent The Visit.

I was really hoping that Split would continue that tendency. It's another cunning, low budget thriller which plays mind games with the audience, and its protagonists. And it begins very promisingly.

Three attractive teenage girls are kidnapped and imprisoned by a nut case. And not just any nutcase. The bad guy, played by James McAvoy, has multiple personalities. Some of whom are sympathetic to the trapped girls, and might even release them...

This is a great set up for an inexpensive suspense movie using a small cast and a limited number of sets. And Shyamalan ups the stakes by cleverly involving regular visits by the nut (it's hard to give him a name, because he has 23 of them) to his shrink, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

And Dr Fletcher is no dope. She begins to work out that her patient is up to no good. So the suspense is building nicely...

Amongst the kidnapped girls is Casey, played Anya Taylor-Joy, last seen in The Witch. She's terrific, and Casey is a fascinating character. She's an outcast, and in flashbacks to her childhood, where she's touchingly played by the 5 year old Izzie Coffey, we begin to learn why Casey is the way she is.

Unfortunately Casey's back story is so horrific that it unbalances the film. It is cruel and unjustified — or at best feebly justified — by the plot.

This is one of the movie's problems, but not its biggest one. Because Split is shaping towards a perfectly satisfying denouement when it goes wildly off the rails. 

You see, one of the bad guy's many personalities is 'The Beast'. And The Beast has supernatural powers. If you stab him with a knife, the knife breaks. He can crawl up walls like a gecko... Oh oh.

This spoils the movie and it's also terribly unfair on poor James McAvoy who does an amazing job of playing all the different personalities up to this point. I really think he might have been in the running for an Oscar if he hadn't started crawling up walls...

Oddly, Split goes back onto the rails at the very end. Sort of. Because Shyamalan reveals that this is in fact an origin story for a super villain and he intends to pit The Beast against his super hero from Unbreakable (released 17 years ago), played by Bruce Willis.

Okay, this is certainly audacious. And it sort of justifies Split's abrupt lurch into unreality. But it doesn't save the movie. Because how many people were waiting avidly for a sequel to Unbreakable? How many people even remember Unbreakable?

Ultimately, Split is a frustrating disappointment.

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

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Passengers by Jon Spaihts

Warning, this post may contain spoilers. And fulsome praise. Well, let's get right to it. I loved Passengers. If you're a fan of science fiction movies, or indeed just movies, you should go and see this. 

It's the tale of a star ship on a century-long journey to a new planet. So that they don't arrive dead of old age, which would be a bummer, all the passengers are in deep hibernation. 

None of this is new. But writer John Spaihts has taken the basic situation and come up with some clever, fresh angles and fashioned a powerful and compelling drama. 

(Spaihts previously worked on the scripts for Doctor Strange, which I liked a great deal. And Prometheus, which I didn't.)

As with Allied, the trailer for Passengers is wildly misleading. It makes us think that two of the hibernating passengers Aurora and Jim (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) have awakened prematurely.

Indeed it even contains a line of dialogue which I don't think is in the finished movie — "We must have woken up for a reason."

But the actual film is nothing like this. Jim does accidentally awaken early — like 90 years too soon. Since there is no way he can get back to sleep he will live and die alone in the echoing corridors of this vast star ship.

Jim wrestles with his dilemma, and ultimately succumbs to temptation and wakes up a companion for himself, the alluring Aurora. Of course, he has now condemned her to an impoverished existence in the echoing corridors, etc.

This aspect of the story has caused Passengers to come in for a lot of flack because of Jim's behaviour. Which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the story. We aren't invited to approve of what he does. 

In fact we share his torment as he wrestles with temptation — which he does for a good long time — and when he gives in, it gives the viewer a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. And the terrible knowledge of what will happen if and when Aurora finds out what has been done to her...

Passengers is a great movie, and full of wonderful stuff. Like Michael Sheen's smiling robot bartender (a close relative of the creepy ghost bartender in The Shining). Or the hilarious, and horrible, class-war aspect of Jim being doomed to cruddy food because he doesn't have a premium ticket on the star ship (Aurora on the other hand is first class all the way). 

And then, best of all, is what happens if you're using the swimming pool on a space vessel and the artificial gravity cuts out.

Passengers has its flaws, like the malarkey about there only being one automated medical unit (on a ship with over five thousand passengers and crew!). 

But I'm more than willing to forgive it that. It's a thrilling science fiction adventure with a powerful human drama built into its heart.

I loved it.

(Image credits: The posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Peaky Blinders by Steven Knight

Prompted by his new TV series Taboo I have finally caught up with Steven Knight's Peaky Blinders. And I have to say I'm delighted. It's a lot more solid and consistent that Taboo and has already achieved a higher level of interest and involvement, at least for this viewer.

This may well be due to the fact that Taboo was co-created by its star Tom Hardy and his dad along with Steven Knight, but Peaky Blinders is entirely Knight's brainchild. It is a 1920s gangster saga but a completely fresh one. For a start, it's British, so prohibition of alcohol is not the engine for crime (Brits never adopted such a silly policy).

The story is set in Birmingham where the 'Peaky Blinders' are the dominant gang. Their name refers to the fact that their flat caps, which every adult male — and a lot of small boys — wear, have razors blades gleaming in their peaks. The cap can then be swept off and used as an offensive weapon, slashing at the face of an enemy. Nasty.

The gang, which really existed, is led in this fictional version by one Tom Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. ('Cillian' is pronounced with a hard 'C': "kill - ee - an.") 

Murphy is an impressive actor with icy blue eyes who has been knocking around for years, often cast as a sinister heavy or a psycho in American action movies. He's better than this material and Peaky Blinders is his breakthrough, showing what he can do.

The series has intriguing parallels with Boardwalk Empire. The shadow of World War One hangs heavily over the characters, and Tom's post traumatic stress is rather more strikingly depicted than anything concerning Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in Boardwalk. 

Tom was a sapper — which means an engineer, who dug tunnels towards the enemy under No Man's Land. He still dreams that the Germans are scraping through the wall of his bedroom, and smokes opium to suppress these nightmares.

Peaky Blinders is a great show with a dynamite cast. Set in opposition to Tom is formidable Belfast cop Inspector Campbell, brilliantly played by Sam Neill. Tom's love interest is Grace Burgess, played by the striking Annabelle Wallace. And Tom doesn't know she's an undercover cop, working for Campbell.
It's a visually stunning series, superbly photographed by George Steel. One of the most striking images is of Tom Shelby riding on horseback through the grimy industrial streets. And director Otto Bathurst (a Hammersmith boy) does a supremely impressive job of bringing Steven Knight's vision to life (Bathurst and Steel worked on the crucial first three episodes of the series).

Also demanding mention is the music. Instead of a period score we get anachronistic but wonderfully effective menacing rock songs by Nick Cave (notably 'Red Right Hand'), evoking the use of Tom Waits's 'Way Down in the Hole' in The Wire.

The period detail is strong and convincing throughout and so far the only false steps are a reference to 'the clap' as syphilis (it's actually gonorrhea) and a rather implausibly harmless hand grenade explosion.

Minor quibbles. Great show.

(Image credits: The blu ray cover is from Amazon. The cool photos of Cillian Murphy, Annabelle Wallace and Sam Neill are all from TheTVDB. The group shot is from the very useful BBC website for the show.)

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Live By Night by Lehane and Affleck

Dennis Lehane is a distinguished American crime novelist. He wrote for the TV series The Wire and many of his books and stories have been snapped up by the movies. The best of these, by a considerable distance, is The Drop, which Lehane adapted himself.

But films of his books include Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and, much the best of this trio, Gone, Baby, Gone which starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Casey's brother Ben who also co-wrote the screenplay.

Now Ben Affleck has adapted Lehane's Live By Night. He's written the screenplay (solo this time), directed it and stars. It's a gangster movie in the classic mould, by which I mean it's set in the time of Prohibition — the golden age of American gang crime.

Indeed Lehane's title echoes They Live By Night, a botched 1946 film adaptation of the finest novel about the crime of this era, Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us. Thieves Like Us was distinctive in that it actually eschewed the gangs and concentrated on the more romantic independent operators... which is to say, bank robbers.

That's how Affleck's movie starts, too, with his character Joe Coughlin resisting overtures to join a gang and continuing to knock over banks. But soon enough he's been forced to sign up with the mob and the movie shifts from wintery 1920s Boston to Ybor City in Tampa.

This is where Live By Night really gets started. The freshness of the Florida location — I've never seen it in a period gangster movie, save for a brief visit to Miami in The Godfather II — is a tremendous asset, with the molasses coming in from the Caribbean to be turned into rum, and an interesting new racial angle in the form of Cuban interests.

The movie is somewhat reminiscent of the excellent TV series Boardwalk Empire, particularly in the presence of the Ku Klux Klan as a threat. The connection seems all the more natural when you realise Lehane has written for Boardwalk.

Ben Affleck is as effective as ever in the lead role, but it's the distaff cast of Live By Night which is especially memorable. Joe Coughlin's love interests consists of Sienna Miller as a treacherous Irish minx and Zoe Saldana as a slinky Cuban princess. 

Scoring particularly strongly is Elle Fanning. It's a relief to see her in a better role after being so ill served by Neon Demon. Though it would be nice if one day she plays a character who doesn't suffer quite so much.

Live By Night is a distinctive, engrossing and bloody tale which ultimately proves very satisfying. As screenwiter and director Affleck does impressively well. However, it pales in comparison to The Town, a modern day crime story set in Boston, which he also scripted, directed and starred in.

The Town was something of a modern classic. Live By Night doesn't  quite reach those heady heights. But if you're in the market for a period gangster movie of the classic variety, Live By Night really delivers the goods.

(Image credits: Only two posters at Imp Awards. The book cover is from New DVD Releases. The nice white and green poster, apparently by Robert Dorian, is from Poster Spy, as is the nice quad — the horizontal version of the official poster. The vintage They Live By Night poster is from IMDB.)

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Taboo by Steven Knight

Regular readers may be aware of my admiration for the British screenwriter Steven Knight. He's not always as his best when adopting other writers' material, as in the disappointing Burnt, but his original screenplays for Allied and Locke were stunningly good. (Not to mention Eastern Promises.)

The new BBC TV series Taboo is largely Steven Knight's work, thought it's based on an idea by Tom Hardy's father, and both Hardys are credited as co-creators. It tells the story of James Delaney, missing and presumed dead in Africa, who returns to London on the death of his father in 1814 to claim his inheritance.

This includes a piece of land — essentially Vancouver Island which is of crucial strategic importance to the East India Company, who are willing to kill Delaney to get it.

The series is produced by Ridley Scott's company and is visually sumptuous and drenched in period atmosphere, but then we'd expect that from the BBC for an historical drama.

The first episode was rapturously good. It was packed with dark drama and fascinating detail — including testing the contents of a corpse's stomach for arsenic. 

I was riveted, and delighted to have found something on British TV which compelled me to tune in each week. (The last time that happened was Wolf Hall.)

The impressive cast includes the alluring Oona Chaplin as Delaney's half sister, a supremely sinister Jonathan Pryce at the helm of the East India Company and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run and the Bourne movies) as a whore with a heart of gold ("You have kind eyes", Delaney tells her). That last character, perhaps, is not entirely breaking new ground...

Unfortunately, the second episode of Taboo was a considerably more shaky affair. It was distinctly thin on plot, suggesting that this eight part series would have been better at six or perhaps even four episodes.

There was also too much swearing. This isn't a moral objection, it's just a fact that if you use a lot of profanity it loses its impact. Instead of saving the F-bombs for crucial bits of dialogue, this script just scattered them everywhere.

The episode also wasn't helped by a lurid turn from Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent. But the story rallied towards the end, with a new claimant to Delaney's birthright turning up out of the woodwork.

Last night's third episode rallied considerably, with a mercifully brief appearance by the Prince Regent, rather too much swearing still, but some fun dialogue ("Mr Delaney is outside with guns and a cannibal"). Finger crossed that this show lives up to its brilliant opening. 

(Image credits: the stylish poster is from Imp Awards. Tom Hardy with top hat and red stripe on his face is from Digital Spy.  Hardy in the rain is from What's On TV. The on-location shot is from — forgive me — The Daily Mail. The others are from the BBC's official website.)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Edge by Dick Francis

I'm always up for a Dick Francis novel. Gripping crime stories, beautifully written, with memorable, believable characters. The fact that they always hinge on horses is, if anything, a bonus.

Speaking of bonuses, The Edge is an exceptionally interesting Dick Francis tale as far as I'm concerned, because it's set on a train speeding across Canada. I grew up in Canada, and my dad worked for the railways. The story even includes a visit to my hometown, Winnipeg. 

I mentioned the quality of Francis's writing. His prose brings scenes to life with sensual immediacy, as when he talks of the "deepening orange of the autumn sunshine" or how "The daylight faded almost imperceptibly into night, electricity taking over the sun's job smoothly."

Indeed, all his descriptions of being on the train are terrific: "One moment we were stationary, the next sliding forward smoothly... as if on silk ... swaying gently now to the movement of gathering speed."

Then there's "the chilly shifting join between cars" and the "grunting uphill slither" as the train hits the mountains — which are described as "silent giants towering above". Plus there's some amusing character stuff, as with the teenager who momentarily "forgot to look sullen."

What I didn't like about the book is his dud evocation of one of the local characters. Dick Francis seems to think that Canadians say "eh" all the time. Now, I know this is a widely held view, but having lived in Canada myself for decades I've never encountered anyone who talked like that.

And every time Francis proudly trotted out this solecism I felt like throwing the book across the room. I mean, he wouldn't have written about a Cockney character who said "Cor blimey, guvnor" every five seconds, would he?

Lest we forget though, this is nevertheless a splendid book, classic Francis. And, like Come To Grief, it features an evil secret involving animal cruelty — in this case, nastiness to cats, which as you might imagine I found especially disturbing.

(Image credits: The main shot, the edition I read, is from G.D. Price at ABE Books. The other covers are from Good Reads, as is traditional.)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rogue One by Weitz, Gilroy, Knoll and Whitta

(Warning: contains spoilers... and loads of negativity, man.) 

I fully expected Rogue One to be on my list of best films of 2016. Instead it's unquestionably the biggest cinematic disappointment of the year.

You know you're in trouble when the most engaging and appealing character in your movie is a reprogrammed Imperial android. Sadly, the delightful K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) gets shot to pieces at the end of the movie. Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, also ultimately proves impressive in a poorly conceived and underwritten role.

Which makes it even more invidious that Rogue One ends with the clear suggestion that she doesn't survive, either. Although on the other hand I was delighted that the blind samurai — sorry, Jedi — was obliterated, along with a bunch of other boring minor characters.

Sorry for the spoilers, folks, but I strongly advise you to either give this movie a miss, or put it very low on your priority list.

I can't believe that with the example of The Force Awakens so clearly before them the makers of Rogue One could have done such a terrible job. The Force Awakens was so good it gave me goose bumps. Rogue One was so dull I almost fell asleep,

Not that it's short of spectacle, or action. But the filmmakers haven't learned the basic lesson that spectacle and action are irrelevant if they don't make us care about the characters or what they're doing.

The movie looks great. The design, settings and effects are all dazzling. But the script is a complete failure. Which is astonishing, because among the four credited authors is Tony Gilroy, one of the finest screenwriters of his generation. But this screenplay fails on every level.

We don't care about the characters, they are passive, they are dull and bland, have no clear goals, the whole plot is a murky mess and the dialogue stinks. Perhaps Rogue One isn't as badly written as the Lucas prequels. But it shares some of their major script deficiencies — for a start there is no clear cut, compelling story.

There's lots of chasing around for McGuffins, or plot coupons. And there's always one more stupid thing to do. They have to get the plans of the Death Star, then they have to plug in the transmitter, then they have to throw the master switch, then they have to adjust the angle of the antenna, then they have to open the force field to let the transmission through...

You get the picture. And all of this involves a lot of exposition, and explaining, and shouting by the poor actors, who have been given nothing to work with. Instead of this crap, someone needed to come up with a story. One which properly challenged and tested the characters and emotionally engaged the audience.

The Force Awakens grabbed us and never let go. Rogue One never manages to grip us even for an instant. It is full of filler and exposition and somnolent nonsense. There's a big debate among the Rebel Council which is a boring and irrelevant as any of that parliamentary bilge in the Lucas prequels.

And, as with those films, the dialogue in Rogue One really is bad. Mostly it's just flat, dull, boring and doesn't advance the story or reveal character. But now and then it lets off a real stinker. Here are two lines that may not seem too invidious to you, but they really irked me:

"You can stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy?" Well, darling, a flag doesn't reign. It might flap or fly or hang or any number of other things. But it doesn't reign. And then there's "I couldn't face myself if I gave up now"... When was the last time you faced yourself? I suppose we do it in the mirror, but instead of facing themselves in the mirror the producers should have got someone who can actually write dialogue to fix the speeches in this terribly mediocre script.

There are other problems, too, beyond the script. We have some wonderful actors here who are utterly wasted. The magnificent Forrest Whittaker has been put in a wild space suit which looks like something out of David Lynch's Dune, and he seems to have been infected with the sort of overacting Lynch encourages, and so proceeds to eat the scenery. It doesn't help that he has a silly wig.

Ben Mendelsohn, another wonderful actor is given another stupid hairdo, and nothing but cliché bad guy lines to bellow. Then there's the CGI revenant of the late Peter Cushing, a phantom menace if ever there was one. Is this thing convincing? 

No, it's way too deep in the uncanny valley to make anyone think it's Peter Cushing. Or indeed a human being.

And then the recently deceased Carrie Fisher turns up at the end, also CGI spawned to make her look youthful. In fact she looks like a sinister rubber faced automaton with grinning chipmunk cheeks. Like Cushing, she seems to have escaped from the Polar Express.

And on top of that, when Darth Vader first appears, he's supposed to make this big dramatic entrance. But he's so badly lit, and his costume looks so cheap and shabby, that the whole effect is just pitiful.

In fairness, when Vader turns up again near the end wielding a light sabre, he is considerably more impressive. But that doesn't save this movie. Nothing could. No doubt it will make gazillions of dollars and will be adored by fans. But I was a fan — utterly won over by The Force Awakens — and suddenly I'm not one any more.

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