Red Sparrow (2018)

redsp1Black Swan meets Tinker. Tailor… or Spies Like Us maybe. An old-fashioned cold-war spy thriller, surprisingly leaning toward the cerebral rather than the OTT fighting or stunts of films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick etc would seem right up my street, but something was wrong here. Maybe it was the strangely farcical plot, which is why I mentioned Spies Like Us. A renowned ballet star, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), living in a concrete tenement block frozen in snow, is looking after her ill mother in-between ballet performances until during a ballet her leg is hideously broken when her dance partner misjudges a jump. Her career ended and her home and mother’s medical care (both provided by the Ballet company) under threat, she is approached by her uncle, Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who just happens to be a leading Russian intelligence operative, seeking her help with a case, after which he forces her to be recruited into the Sparrow Academy, where beautiful young Russians are trained in the arts of sexual manipulation and…

Okay, I’ll spare you and stop right there. It really is as silly and coincidental and plot-holed as it likely seems from that attempt at a summary. I haven’t even mentioned a good-hearted CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and his Russian Mole (identity secret – a surprise twist later that seems one too many) who is being hunted down by the Russians following a messed-up rendezvous.

It seems well-intentioned and is indeed a return to old-fashioned spy capers but its just hamstrung by a crazy plot and awkward presentation. It just looks and feels wrong and none of the characters really convince- Lawrence’s frustrated Ballerina is just a mystery,  we never know what makes her ‘tick’, her dancing is quickly forgotten and in no time at all she becomes a hardened spy who can second-guess and manipulate and fight her way out of trouble when she needs to. There is a sexual undertone between she and her uncle that suggests a Black Swan-like darkness but its not developed, just hangs there, a plot-thread someone forgot or got embarrassed by or didn’t have the courage to develop.

So a frustrating (you should see the cast list- every few minutes it seems some other major actor appears, frankly the script is beneath all of them) film that I can’t really recommend. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly tries, is found wanting and alarmingly vacuous. Some films are just duds, no matter how fine the cast or how proficient the crew (director Frances Lawrence of three of the Hunger Games movies). If the intention was to launch a new spy franchise for Jennifer Lawrence, then hopefully its failed and this will be consigned to the box for unwise cynical green-lights. Its long, its baffling, its ridiculous. Quite bizarre, and I still haven’t seen Lawrence’s mother! yet (what is happening regards her choice of movies post-Hunger Games?)- I’m wary about that one.

Ender’s Game (2013)

end12016.33: Enders Game (Network Airing, HD)

Youngsters playing videogames save humanity from Alien menace.

Well, thats essentially it. The youngsters think they are playing a videogame simulating an attack on alien planet, when its actually really happening. They win the game, annihilating the aliens, only to find out -gosh!- that gigantic space armada in the game was the real thing obeying their instructions. Yes, whenever they lost ships hundreds of real people got killed but, hey, they won the game! Earth is saved!

This film really is that stupid. I mean, you have the fate of humanity at stake. You have a vast armada of huge battleships and attack fighters, thousands of military personnel. And you have an orbiting school for ‘gifted’ teens to find a kid to put in charge of the bloody lot. I don’t mean ‘gifted’ as per special powers such as the mutants of X-Men or super-intellects. I mean a bunch of teens who maybe passed their GCSEs a bit early. It’s utterly insane.

Incredulous, I watched this film convinced there would be a twist (other than that final painful one- literally game over, kid, you won the war-that left a huge WTF expression on my face that lingered for hours) but there isn’t one. Unless, well, I guess I could mention the painful coda/twist that suggests that, even though they attacked Earth fifty years ago, the aliens might not have been quite so evil after all so our teen hero has to fly off to make amends. I mean, what?

When the best thing about a film is its excessive CGI and green screen there is something rather wrong. It starts a little like The Hunger Games, reluctant teen becomes hero (in this case, it’s a male rather than a female) but it is a pale shadow of that series. I’ve read that the film is based on a series of books written by Orson Scott Card but I can only hope that most of the best material was lost in the screenplay, because the film does the book/s no favours at all. They ploughed $100 million into this turkey- I can in no way fathom what they saw in the screenplay that merited that kind of attention and outlay. Sure, teen-angst adventures were all the rage post-Harry Potter and Hunger Games but really, this tedious film is really poor and wide of the mark.

And anyone surprised/impressed that Harrison Ford thought the script for Blade Runner 2 was one of the very best he’d read and so good he subsequently signed up to star in it, well, its time to be rather worried. If Ford thought Ender’s Game was worthy of him, then really we need to be very cautious about BR2. I swear he looks half-asleep in much of this. What was he thinking (i.e. how much was his pay packet)? Whatever it was, he returns the favour with one of his worst performances that I have ever seen. I’ve seen better performances by trees, he’s that wooden.

It’s a harrowing film. Avoid.

 

 

The Purge (2013)

purge12016.31: The Purge (TV, Film 4)

The Purge is another near-future dystopia rather like The Hunger Games series. On one night every year the citizens of the United States go on a murder/rape/whatever-goes spree without any fear of criminal prosecution, the theory being that by thus exorcising them of all their pent-up frustrations and violent rage they can be law-abiding citizens the rest of the year. It’s a twelve-hour period when the police and emergency services step back and let the citizens run amok, a ‘purge’ to cleanse the soul of America, after which normal civilisation returns and survivors honour those who died ‘for the greater good’. We are told that for the remaining 364 days of the year crime is largely unheard of. All of this by the year 2022.

Whoops. 2022? Six years from now? There goes any credibility. At least The Hunger Games set itself in some distant post-Apocalypse future; this thing looks like it might happen next week. Unfortunately this film doesn’t have a big enough budget to create a far-future society, it has to be set pretty much in the here and now, hence the leap of faith and required suspension of disbelief with the date set in 2022. Its your standard modern dumb movie with a grand idea and subsequent mediocre execution.

More than that, the Purge itself is largely off-camera and the subject of news broadcasts watched by the protagonists on tv, because this film is really more an unofficial remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (oddly starring Ethan Hawke who was himself in an official remake of Assault on Precinct 13 some years ago-yes it’s all very confusing, I almost had to second-glance which film I was watching).

Hawke plays James Sandin, a wealthy engineer who has sold advanced home security systems to the rich that turns homes into armoured fortresses so Purgers cannot get in and kill owners during the annual Purge. On this particular Purge night however, after Sandin and his wife and children hunker down for the night, tech-wiz son Charlie sees an injured and bleeding man begging for help outside and allows him entry. Unfortunately for the Sandins. the man has been targeted by a gang of rich blood-thirsty Purgers who want the man released back to them so they can kill him. Otherwise they will lay siege to the house and kill all the Sandins too. Very Assault on Precinct 13 territory here.

Which brought me to the realisation that, while the film is by no means bad, it would have been immeasurably superior had it been directed by John Carpenter, a director well-accustomed to delivering real tension and thrills in films like this- hell, he directed the original Assault on Precinct 13 and very best example of this kind of siege movie. He could have made this into a tight, riveting action b-movie that was more than the sum of its parts. Hell, he could probably do it in his sleep.

Ethan Hawke in The PurgeOne other observation- Ethan Hawke is in his mid-forties now and looks incredibly similar to how Harrison Ford did in his heyday- particularly how Ford looked in Blade Runner in 1982. They could cast Hawke as a young Deckard for flashbacks in Blade Runner 2 and it’d be quite convincing. Really, give it a look. It’s quite spooky, particularly when he nervously patrols the darkened house with gun and flashlight.

Anyway, The Purge is by no means a bad film, just not as good as it might have been, even if it is saddled with a premise that isn’t really as clever as it thinks it is. I gather the second Purge movie is better and that there’s actually a third on the way. I guess audiences don’t mind their films to be stupid as long as they are simple, undemanding and violent. These Purge movies could run and run then.

 

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 2 (2015)

hungr12016.25: The Hunger Games-Mockingjay Pt.2 (Blu-ray)

Well, I’m glad I watched Pt.1 the night before, because after twelve months I would have been pretty well lost dropping straight into this one as there is no re-cap at all; the viewer is just thrown into it as if having watched Pt.1 immediately prior (which would be a looong double-bill, incidentally). These serial storylines are problematic and just assuming the audience is up to speed could backfire and it certainly hampers the storytelling. The fans will  be fine but casuals like me, well, we need a little consideration. You don’t get a huge multi-million dollar franchise just working to the hardcore crowd, after all (maybe Lucas was on to something with those introductory crawls in the Star Wars films).

Anyway, two questions spring to mind. Does this film work as a separate film, and does it work as a conclusion to part one (and the films prior to that)?

Well, as a separate film it’s clearly problematic. Mockingjay Pt.1 has set things up and Pt.2 needs to be immediately up and running and finding a resolution to everything- which would be easy enough had the film only got to last ninety minutes maybe, but this thing is again over two hours long. So just as in the case of Pt.1, there is plenty of padding here, uncomfortable lulls as the film slows things down when it should (or had Mockingjay been one film) be racing to a conclusion, reaching for that resolution.

Just when things seem to be happening it often seems to make a clumsy side-step. A handy foil against finishing everything seems to be the still-unconvincing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale which repeatedly threatens to bring the film to a stuttering halt (that said, I can’t say I was ever particularly convinced by the romance between Katniss and Peeta in previous films either). I just accept all the romantic drama nonsense as an indication of the original novels being aimed at a teenage female audience and try to ignore it but it’s something of a problem for the films when the central relationship doesn’t convince. By the time the love triangle is resolved it is with a distinct sense of anticlimax anyway.

hungr2These lulls in the plot and problems with pacing also occurred in Pt.1, which does make me wonder if there might somehow be a fan-edit one day assembling Pt.1 and Pt.2 into a workable single film. Even if it were two and a half hours long or more it might work better with superior pacing. There clearly isn’t really enough material in Pt.2 to really justify releasing Mockingjay as two separate films, particularly with all the treading water plot-wise of Pt.1 already. Suspicions that it was a greedy studio trying to crank up some extra box-office from the material seem well-founded. Looking at it the other way, had Mockingjay been released as one film, and then released as two extended cuts as we have them today, would those extended cuts be well-lauded, or contain important scenes that fans were desperate and glad to finally to see? I rather doubt it.

So I have to wonder if  Mockingjay Pt.2 is perhaps stretching things just a film too far.

In anycase, this film concludes the Hunger Games saga of what has become four films. As such, how does Mockingjay Pt.2 fare? Well, its a mixed bag really. I guess the biggest surprise to me is the sense of self-importance the last two films have-it reminds me of what happened with the Matrix films. By the time Mockingjay comes around it’s all very serious and momentous and stodgy. Indeed, is it just me or does Jennifer Lawrence actually look bored throughout this film?

I welcomed the examination of the importance of propaganda, about what is real and fabricated in order to marshall and influence public opinion. How the public seem to instinctively look for a leader, an icon. How the end justifies the means and how leaders hide personal agendas. There’s some very interesting stuff there that I didn’t expect. Unfortunately its all rather an intellectual exercise and lacking in any emotional value. What began as a thrilling dystopian future with people fighting in life and death arenas for public amusement and the status quo has by Mockingjay Pt.2 been completely ditched in favour of a rather dry tale of political skullduggery, of opposing campaigns using Katniss and Peeta to influence the masses and further their own agendas.

There is one sequence in the sewers that feels like something out of Aliens and is one of the highlights of the whole saga, but there isn’t really a lot else that thrills or recaptures the excitement of the first film. Part of it is the self-importance and profundity of Katniss and her cause as she attempts to finally bring President Snow to justice. It just threatens to drag the whole thing down into maudlin melodrama. Or is this is because Katniss seems to have become, incredibly, actually rather irritating, unable to take charge, simply accepting that she is being used as a political weapon. Perhaps she is supposed to be broken and traumatised but there are moments where she seemingly cannot think for herself, or take charge of her own destiny. Hardly the definition of a hero.

As realistic as that may be intellectually, it doesn’t really lend itself to a great heroine in a grand adventure. By the time the final twist occurs it doesn’t really come as a surprise, and the film lacks, shockingly, any real emotional punch at its end. Characters die and we feel very little. For a saga spanning four films this seems to be the biggest sin of all. There is no valediction, no fanfare, as Katniss finally walks into the proverbial sunset in a love affair that didn’t really convince me anyway, so it all felt rather shallow. The ending satisfies on an intellectual level but fails on an emotional one. For a saga aimed at teenage girls that really surprised me.

It’s not even a movie (not in the old sense): Mockingjay Part 1.

mock1I remember back when The Empire Strikes Back was released, back in the summer of 1980; it was criticised by some for having a poor structure. Films generally have a beginning, middle and end (at least they used to- these days some films are more like serials that might make perfect sense when viewed in a Blu-ray boxset but prove rather more problematic viewed as individual entries). My reference to TESB however isn’t chiefly because it was the middle part of a trilogy, moreover it was how the film was structured itself. I recall John Brosnan pointing out in his TESB review in Starburst that in an ordinary movie, the battle of Hoth would have been the grand climax. Instead it was placed in the first third leaving everything beyond it rather anti-climatic, even the duel between Luke and Vader (which itself, when you think of it, ends without any real resolution). Back at the time I was your typical teenage Star Wars-nut and thought Brosnan was talking nonsense; TESB was even better then the first Star Wars in my eyes, and Brosnan’s talk about film-structure flew over my head. But over the past few years I’ve thought back to Brosnan’s comments.

In a strange way, that odd structure of TESB would prove rather prophetic though. Films really don’t have that beginning, middle and end anymore; not always anyway. Of course TESB had not just put its traditional grand climax in the first third, it also ended on something of a cliffhanger,.Again, this was very unusual at the time, but Star Wars was famously based on old movie serials, so people could get their heads around what Lucas was doing. But I don’t think anyone back then could have predicted how films would eventually make TESB look rather normal, its then-odd structure rather mundane. Imagine Lucas saying back then “someday, all films will be made this way”- people would have thought he was crazy, his huge successes at the Box-Office notwithstanding. But now, people have become used to films lacking any real resolution, indeed, some entire films are just a tease for the next one. Were people coming out of screenings of Interstellar thinking that all their questions will be answered in the next one, only to be frustrated when informed that’s it, its just Interstellar, that was The End, there is no sequel?

I was thinking about all this watching the most recent film in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1. I don’t know much about the books, but I understand that there are three in the series and the third book Mockingjay is being split into two movies. Its all very The Hobbit (not forgetting the last Harry Potter.book being split into two or indeed the next entry in the Divergent series).

I won’t go into how cynical it all seems regards maximising ticket sales in cinemas or further along with the DVD/Blu-ray sales. What concerns me is how it effects the individual films themselves. Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film, indeed, in some ways its the most interesting of the Hunger Games series I’ve seen. But it is inevitably hamstrung by the decision, right or wrong, artistic or purely business-based, to split its original book’s story into two. Essentially Mockingjay is, by its very nature, the beginning and part-middle of a bigger story. There is no resolution here. Characters are being introduced, arcs being set up, that will not come to fruition until the second part. It makes for  very frustrating experience, especially in light of having to wait another year for the conclusion (I much preferred how Warners managed the two Matrix sequels, released, as I recall, only six months apart?).

hob3Moreover, I do think the second part itself will also suffer, as these films usually do. It won’t have much time (or feel any need) to set events up, it will likely leap into the storyline in a rush to the grand finale. That might be fine, or indeed welcomed, by fans, but it won’t really be functioning like a ‘proper’ movie. It’ll be the second part; the middle and end to a larger story. Maybe I’m alone in thinking in how annoyed I was by the beginning of the third Hobbit movie, leaping into the Smaug attack on Laketown, shoving a noisy climactic sequence into the beginning of a film where I should have been settling into it, not having my senses assaulted from the very start. For myself, that entire sequence was ruined by not having any build-up. CGI suffers without dramatic storytelling around it as it is; here there was no build-up of tension, no raising of dramatic effect, no context. It was just “Bang-here we go, have a visual effects reel before we start the movie proper!” That sequence should have been the end of the second film, giving that film a much-needed climax, and the third film allowed to set up its own arcs/storyline for its own climax. Good business for Warner/MGM maybe but lousy artistic sense; it spoiled two movies and crippled what should have been a highlight.

Mockingjay Part One rather meanders through two hours (!) leading to an inevitable tease promising a ‘proper’ conclusion that leaves it inevitably wanting. It doesn’t function as an exercise in traditional storytelling. Being split itself in two surely risks alienating its audience- I wonder how many people stayed away, preferring to wait until Mockingjay Part Two is released? I was tempted to delay watching the Blu-ray until the second film gets released on disc next year but my curiosity got the better of me. But even then, to (eventually) watch the entire Mockingjay story will require something like four hours over the two parts. What is the sense in that? Does the storyline deserve that much screentime, can it carry all those hours? How many people will ever watch both in one sitting? Is it always doomed to be two parts over (at best) two consecutive nights? Would it just work better as a two and a half-hour movie, or even one approaching three hours in one whole, with its own beginning, middle and end? Don’t we as an audience deserve that? Shouldn’t we be demanding that?

Somehow none of these trilogies/serials feel like ‘proper’ movies any more, but splitting the individual parts of these trilogies/sagas into two just makes it even worse. Where will it end?  A three-part Hobbit movie? Ahem.

Of Hungry Games and Un-Tolkien Hobbits

catchingfireWatched Catching Fire the other day, the second of the Hunger Games series of films (of which there will be four, I believe). Good film, mind, but I have to say I’m getting increasingly irritated by all these movie series. Its as if a series box-set mania has settled over Hollywood of late. I guess it was inevitable, considering the ‘safety-net’ of sequels and how they almost sell themselves.

We decided to watch the first film, The Hunger Games, the night before, to refresh our memory having not seen it for, what, a year or two? Just as well, because it improved being able to follow events/characters in the second film no end. I have no idea of what the original books are like, or what happens in them. The films seem to be quite good and I assume fairly faithful to the books. Seems the third book is being split into two films though, which is rather irritating- we get the third film November 2014 and the third November 2015? So those of us who avoid the cinema like the plague will have to wait for disc releases each following Spring. Does the third book warrant this two-part treatment, or is it a financial decision to maximise box-office and disc sales? Ignorant of the texts, I really don’t know. Harry Potter did it. The Hobbit is notorious for it, going for three.

Serials/mini-series on television have a key advantage over movies in that they can spread a story/book over several hours, and have more in-depth characterisation and narrative/plot than can be condensed into an ordinary two-hour movie. Of course, you also usually only have to wait a week for succeeding chapters/parts, whereas transferring the positives of the serial format into the movie-arena proves somewhat problematic with annual or bi-annual breaks between parts. Re-watching Catching Fire the other night with the in-laws was a telling experience, with my mother-in-law sighing “oh, no…!” when she realised that yes, the film after two-plus hours was indeed ending on this almighty cliffhanger with a year-long wait to see what happens next. Its frustrating (the cliffhanger highly reminiscent of that of Matrix Reloaded, but at least being shot back-to-back the Matrix 2 & 3 only had a six-month break between them).

I’m sure The Hunger Games Quartet box-set (or whatever its called when its released in 2016) will be a great watch for those new to the Hunger Games series- it would be nice to watch each film over successive nights/weeks and get the whole story to its conclusion in good time. Indeed I’ve recommended a friend at work to perhaps simply wait for the boxset and watch them then. But for those of us watching them right now its very irritating. I remember when you sat down to watch a film knowing it would have a definitive end, it seems a long time ago. All the super-hero films being inter-connected have the feeling of being teasers for further instalments.

smaug1Of course some films feel like they might never end, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, ostensibly based on  a rather short and simple book, transferred to film seems to be a bloated middle section of an epic without end. Complaints that the first film took a long time to get started seem to have been heeded by the film-makers, but this turns out, oddly enough, to be at the detriment of the second film, as it now just seems to race from one set-piece to another. The character-building of the first film seems to have been ditched entirely (perhaps rectified when the extended edition arrives in the Autumn?), instead new characters are thrown in proving more an irritating distraction from the guys we should be rooting for. And the troop of dwarves here are very inferior to the fellowship of the Rings films- whether this is the casting or the script I don’t know, but I think the blame chiefly lies with the skimpy source. The depth frankly isn’t there compared to the characters of the Rings trilogy- indeed  The Hobbit series seems to be proving woefully weak compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, clearly without the substance of source to carry a huge trilogy of films.  The Hobbit book itself was never an epic; it was an intimate, charming children’s fantasy book and re-fashioning it into this huge sprawling complex narrative is doing it a disservice. And the ending of this film is even worse than that of Catching Fire. My brother saw this at the cinema and told me there was a collective groan of disbelief/frustration/weariness amongst the cinema goers at the films denouement. It doesn’t get any better when watching it at home.

Of course no doubt many are lapping this Hobbit stuff  up- I have seen several reviews declaring DOS  better than the first film. Well, the first film was flawed but anyone stating this film is superior is patently wrong; its simply an OTT effects showcase (and oddly those are somewhat dodgy effects in places), lurching from set-piece to set-piece with interminably long action sequences that are rather clumsily staged. The really sad bit comes when these action sequences are compared to those of the original LOTR films. Compare the barrel escape and subsequent chase/fight down the river in DOS to the fight sequence with Boromir and co. at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring- its like they are staged and shot by different film-makers. There’s simply far too much don’t-I-look-cool posing and over-thought doesn’t-it-look-cool fight choreography. Rather than just keep it simple and fairly realistic we are (just as with the chase in the Goblin King’s Halls in the first film) thrown into something reminiscent of a video-game. There is a substance lacking here, its just cgi bells and whistles to impress. Yet, many do indeed lap this stuff up. Me, I’m waiting for it to stop, but when it does, I’m then being bored/irritated by some ill-thought romance between a frustrated Wood-Elf and a Dwarf- hardly the stuff of Tolkien is it? Just how much of the actual Hobbit book is in this film anyway?

One of the things I loved about the Rings films was the incidental detail- fallen idols, ancient ruins, hints of a rich and largely unmentioned past that lent the setting a verisimilitude that gave the whole thing a gravity and drama. The Hobbit films don’t seem to have that. Yes, it looks gorgeous but it seems to lack any of the the depth of the Rings films. Perhaps it is something the extended versions will comparatively excel at.

I’m rather of the opinion that The Hunger Games films are superior films/book adaptations to The Hobbit films. I wouldn’t have expected that, to be honest, after enjoying the LOTR films so much. Its a pity, and I really think that the root cause is not being faithful to the material. The Hobbit could have been one movie, maybe two films at most. This trilogy nonsense seems more about making money than anything else- perhaps the third film will come good and prove me wrong, justifying this trilogy approach after all. Time will tell.

 

One last thing- a nod to my work colleague Steve who, having realised he’d somehow ordered two copies of this film on Blu-ray in error, simply gave his extra copy to me. I’d intended to wait for the extended version this Autumn but his generosity enabled me to see the film much earlier than intended. Cheers Steve!