Saturday, 15 January 2022

OUT NOW: The 355

A technological terror is loose and it is up to a ragtag group of intelligence agents (Jessica Chastain, Lupitia Nyong'o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz and Fan Bingbing) to find it and defeat the parties interested in selling and using it.



This movie is a bit of a heartbreaker.

The cast are the best thing about it - and I mean their names on the poster.


I did not read any reviews going in, but I was aware they were not good. I decided to go anyway - maybe the movie would work on me and I could have something interesting to write about. 


Co-written by Theresa Rebeck and Simon Kinberg, and directed by Kinberg, The 355 is a weird experience.


It does not succeed at what it wants to be, but that failure to work is not enjoyable to watch. Rather than putting an original spin on the Bond/Bourne spy thriller template, this movie is bland, underwritten and shapeless.


It is not the kind of movie I like to review. 


The script does not really set up the characters and the situation never feels that bad. It also feels tired and cliche in such an obvious way - the line ‘the friend of my enemy is my friend’ is uttered without irony.


This movie also crystallised something I dislike about these kinds of action thrillers. I enjoy the escapism of undercover capers and global schemes, but I do not like too much connection to real world contexts (in this movie’s case, the War on Terror). Unless the movie is going to offer some kind of critique or satirical reading, I find it hard to get invested in pure jingoism. 


The movie (mostly) centres around agents from major powers and for the first half it felt like it was setting up the familiar dynamic of good Western agents chasing nefarious foreigners through world locales. 


 The movie’s early sequences ultimately set up a betrayal designed to undermine the main characters’ belief in their bosses. However the plot turn is obvious and the way the characters resolve the situation left me baffled as to the movie’s ultimate point. 


Have they seen the impact of their role on the world? Do they want to fight against the system they used to represent? At one point, a villain points out the CIA’s role in destabilising governments around the world, but the movie has no deeper point to make. 


This is a big budget movie from a Hollywood studio so it is ridiculous to expect a radical re-working. But filmmakers have made radical statements through popcorn movies before and it feels like there is a more subversive version of this movie that could have been made here.


While the movie has no dramatic or thematic originality, I was hoping that the movie would compensate with the conventions of its genre, primarily some interesting set pieces and sense of scale. 


But despite being a globe-trotting thriller, this movie feels small. The action and choreography veers between competent (some of the one take fight scenes) and confusing (the final shootout).


The editing in this movie is bizarre - shots are cut together in a way that frustrates geography or work against the pace. There is also a televisual quality to the visuals, with an over-emphasis on close-ups and mid-shots of characters, particularly during group interactions, when we are supposed to buy their growing rapport.


Weirdly, the main selling point - the cast - do not provide any compensation. It feels like the actors are miscast - what is worse is that they do not seem to have chemistry with each other. 


It seems like this movie wants to present characters who are pros and keep their inner selves behind a facade, but it does it wrong because these characters never come alive - Chastain is a boy scout, Nyong'o is a computer whiz; Cruz wants to go home to her kids; Kruger is hard as nails; Fan Bingbing is working 5 moves ahead. These characters seem defined by their jobs and never build beyond what little we know of them.


At the level of the story and how it is told, this movie feels dead - actors speak at each other with no real feelings and fire guns at targets we cannot see. The stakes never rise and the movie goes on forever.


The 355 is unexceptional in its failure to execute, and that is disappointing considering the talent involved.


If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

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Saturday, 8 January 2022

OUT NOW: The King’s Man

Chronicling the events leading up to the founding of the Kingsman agency, The King's Man tells the story of Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a nobleman and pacifist committed to preventing conflict.

When the archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and the world is plunged into war, Orlando and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) are drawn into a global conspiracy to destroy the global world order.

With the support of his staff, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), Orlando goes on the trail of the villains, who have infiltrated the highest offices of the European powers.

Orlando's mission becomes all the more urgent when his son joins the war effort.

Can he save the world before it destroys itself?

I took this photo in 2019, before the film was delayed.

You know a franchise is on shaky ground when the third entry is a prequel.


The original movie is one I am torn on. On the one hand, it feels like a Verhoeven lens on Bond, with a clear eye on the power structures behind traditional notions of class.


On the other, I find it hyperactive and cheap in visual style. Part of it is the way CGI is used through the film - to touch up the violence, provide backdrops etc. There is something so overheated about Matthew Vaughn’s style as a director that I cannot completely get on board with. 


I think the original Kingsman is a good movie, with novelty and energy. Sadly, The King’s Man has neither of these qualities.


There is nothing about this prequel that feels new or exciting.


The acting is good - Fiennes brings pathos to the lead role and Rhys Ifans brings debauched menace to Rasputin - but nothing stands out. 


Matthew Vaughn’s casting can be spot-on, but he has a weakness for casting bland in his younger leads (Taron Edgerton aside). It might be the writing but Harris Dickinson welts against his older co-stars.


He is not bad but the film wants the viewer to buy into him and his relationship with his dad in a way that it completely fails to do. 


The original movie was based around Eggsy, who was an easy entry point to the world of Kingsman. 


He also comes in with the odds against him: He is a kid from a council estate - among the rich recruits, he is an outsider. He is an inbuilt point for audience empathy. 


There is no dynamic like that here and I found it difficult to invest in the Oxfords (Fiennes and Dickinson). 


The movie tries to create a contrast between Oxford and the rest of his class by emphasising his lack of prejudice (ala Harry Hart). 

 

Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton play household staff who form the nucleus of Oxford’s spy apparatus. While servants are highlighted as the key cogs in Oxford’s spy games, it does not feel like a radical shift in power - it feels more like Sherlock Holmes and his vast network of contacts.


Honsou and Arterton are solid, but they are not in the movie that much. They are involved in the climax but I am struggling to recall any pivotal moves which are specifically theirs.


Despite the cast’s game efforts, the movie never picks up. It is not as indulgent as The Golden Circle but that is a small consolation.


The problem with the movie is that there is not enough story here. The movie wants to be about a father learning to let go of his child, but I am not sure that it works with the key turning point toward the end of the movie. Like all prequels, this movie is anchored to what was established in the original Kingsman.


At a certain point in the movie, Oxford jr has to die in order to facilitate the birth of the agency. I have criticized a lot of action movies for not putting their protagonists through the ringer, and I thought the way Oxford jr dies was appropriately messy (mistakenly shot by his own side). 


But something is not working.


The film has been trying to raise the stakes by tying into world events, but there is no sense of a ticking clock. The film tries to build pressure by referencing the naval blockade against the UK and the withdrawal of the Russians, but it does not convey that sense of building pressure.


I think the problem is that perspective stays with Oxford and people of his station. We only get a sense of the war’s consequences during young Oxford’s time at the front. 


Otherwise it feels like the true cost of the war is the collapse of the power structure which facilitated and ran the war. And it is hard to feel sympathetic for these institutions.


I am torn on the mysterious puppet master behind the film’s plot. While there is something pointed about a villain using established fault lines to bring the European powers to their knees, his role does lead to the film’s most misguided moves - major historical shifts are reduced to the work of individual power players. 


I think my ultimate issue with this movie is the way it treats history.


Having Kingsman tackling World War One is filled with landlines - it does lead to one of the film’s stronger set pieces but the movie feels torn between Bondian escapist fantasy and the realities of the ground war. 


It means that the movie features both a fight scene between a dancing Rasputin and an Englishman with a sword cane, AND serious sequences of characters’ mouthing cynically about the hypocrisy of the upper classes and waste of human life. This movie wants to have it all, but it all rings a bit hollow.


I also think that the desire to take the cost of war seriously means that the filmmakers dialed back on the sillier and more violent aspects of the series. 


The ultimate problem is that the founding of Kingsman makes for a great backstory in a Kingsman movie, it does not work for a film by itself - at least, this version of it does not.


The founding of Kingsman is presented as a final triumph, but it comes with a bitter aftertaste - they intend to prevent future bloodshed but 


The movie opens in a South African concentration camp, as though trying to undercut the cost and ripple effects of imperialism. But as the movie progresses, the film’s use of the real life context becomes more vague and less effective - the first Kingsman was blunt about what it means to have wealth and power; the ease with which the world’s elite join the Valentine’s scheme felt like a statement. This film never quite reaches the same place.


There is something disturbing by the simplification of history here - it renders whatever point it wants to make inert. And the film ends with a mid credit sting that is so wrongheaded it made me reconsider the film that preceded it. It is either a sting for what happened next or the worst sequel teaser in (movie) history.


The film also suffers in comparison to the original movie - while one or two of the set pieces are effective, nothing in this movie matches the inventiveness, humor or tension of the 2015 picture.


Vaughn apparently has plans for future installments. On this evidence, he is probably better off starting new projects.


If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Friday, 7 January 2022

OUT NOW: The Matrix Resurrections

Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are back. So is Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)! And Smith (Jonathan Groff)! 

What does it all mean?

Welcome back to the Matrix! 



From 2001-2003, The Matrix was one of my favorite movies. My grandfather taped it and I remember watching that tape over and over again.


I was disappointed by the sequels. The story felt complete and Neo’s “Superman thing” was uninteresting. The Matrix fell away after the release of Revolutions. I did eventually watch The Animatrix, and it was pretty good. Of all The Matrix-related media, it is the project I want to revisit. 


I did not go back and watch The Matrix or its sequels before seeing Resurrections. After my 48 hours of Spider-Mania, I need a break from franchise-binge-ing. Besides, I think movies should work on their own. 


So to Resurrections


It is a common maxim with sequels that audiences want the same but different.


I really liked the way this movie reshifted and reframed the ideas from the previous movie.


This movie feels like a white bread sandwich - the beginning and the ending are kind of lackluster and flavourless, but the middle is nutritious.


The movie is a little frustrating for that reason but I did not hate it.


I loved the evolution in the world - the idea of the machines fighting each other, Programmes finding their way into the real world, Machines co-existing with humanity…


This movie may be the final Matrix chapter but I was so curious to find out what else was happening in the real world.


I also like the fact that the film does not spend too much time explaining this new world, but gives us just enough to make it intriguing.


The returning cast are great - it feels like Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss never went away. 


Jessica Henwick plays a new human character who wants to draw Neo back to reality. She is good, although she is relegated to the side as the movie re-orients around the original duo.


Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is good as the alternate version of Morpheus, although his role bears the most in-film comparisons with his predecessor. While it somewhat interesting to see the original scenes in new contexts, it made it impossible not to compare when this film stumbles. 


It took time to get used to but Jonathan Groth makes for an interesting spin on Smith - he is more restrained and duplicitous than the incarnation we know. Considering the way the film re-orients the moral parameters of the original movie, it makes some sense but I did miss Hugo Weaving. 


This movie is all about deviating from expectations and I welcome it, but Smith feels like a missed opportunity. 


I think my dissatisfaction is down to the lack of a clear antagonist and stakes. We do get an antagonist, and his introduction does bring in new stakes, but the film undercuts them. 


The Wachowskis always ally their ideas to technological flash, but this movie’s effects and spectacle are underwhelming.


The wonder and newness of The Matrix is not present here. Compared with the original trilogy, the action sequences here are sloppy - the lighting was too dark, the camera was too close, and the editing cuts up the choreography. 


Watching this movie, it felt like I was watching half a Matrix movie. The familiar stuff felt stale, but the new ideas (or the evolution of old ideas) is intriguing. More importantly, The Matrix Resurrections packs an optimism about humanity and our relationship with technology that is entirely its own. 


 It is ultimately about the multiplicity of existence - not just humanity. The most shocking reveal the movie boasts is that homo sapiens is not the sole force for good in this world. The Matrix Resurrections is a movie about breaking down moral binaries and accepting differences. 


It was an idea present in the previous movies, but Resurrections pushes and expands that idea to its most benevolent endpoint.


So is this movie sloppy? Yes. Does it boast great action scenes? No. 


But while it stumbles, this is the first time since the original that I am actually excited about a Matrix movie. And while it is flawed, it was a breath of fresh air to watch a big budget studio movie with ideas, ambition and a willingness to challenge viewer expectations about an established property. 


If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014)

Guilty about his promise to her father, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) is trying to salvage his relationship with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), repair his friendship with Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), uncover his parents' secrets, fight Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Paul Giamatti practicing his Russian accent.


Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bad movie. Original, I know. 


However, it is not bad in a way that I find particularly interesting. It is basically cut from the same cloth as its prequel. The key difference with its predecessor is cosmetic - the budget here just means that all the structural and character problems from The Amazing Spider-Man are more obvious.

  

Most of the movie just feels bloated and padded out with unnecessary scenes. Just take the opening chunk of the movie:


  • The extended flashback/fight scene on the plane (more money for Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz!)

  • The Rhino set piece involving 1000 police cars (more money for stunts!)

  • The graduation sequence in which Peter grabs Gwen and kisses her in front of the entire school (more money for extras!)


The key takeaway from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that it is very expensive. Everything in this movie is a testament to how expensive this movie is.


Even though the previous movie had experienced a dip compared to Spider-Man 3, there is an over-confidence to this movie that feels completely unwarranted.  


What really bothered me was the gulf between the excess of the acting, and the lack of stakes in the storytelling.  


Most of it is based around the acting between Garfield and Stone - their interactions have the feeling of improv, with a lot of repetition and riffing off of whatever the other actor is saying. The pair were in a relationship at the time, and these scenes feel like a showcase for their chemistry.


It becomes tiresome because there is nothing settled about the arc of their relationship - they are just on and off throughout the movie. The movie wants to be about Peter’s guilt from the promise Captain Stacey wanted from him, but this thread is so inconsistently followed that I lost track of what was going on.


It means that the pivotal scene in this movie - Peter failing to save Gwen - is pointless. It is one of the best-directed scenes in the movie but the lack of development in the script means it is completely lifeless. It feels like clearing the decks to make way for Mary Jane Watson in a future movie. 


The film’s other key thread - Peter’s obsession with his parents - is constantly foregrounded, but I do not get the sense that he learns anything that fundamentally affects him. All of Peter’s key emotional reveals are via videos of people giving speeches which end up relevant to however he is feeling.




This movie is so big and bloated - there are so many different plotlines but unlike Spider-Man 3, it feels like pieces of each plot-line are missing. Ironically, part of what makes Spider-Man 3 aggravating is its focus on covering every single plot thread in detail. There is so much going on in Amazing Spider-Man 2, but it feels like we only get snippets - it feels like a highlight reel of scenes from a season of a TV show. One wishes the filmmakers here had a similar intent to the Raimi crew - but then again, it would have meant a four hour movie.


I have not even mentioned the villains. Jamie Foxx’s Electro feels simplistic, like he is meant for a kid’s movie or a TV show. Meanwhile, Dane DeHaan feels like he is a drama about a rich kid dealing with his father’s rejection. I was shocked at how little screentime each of them had. 


Even after they start working together, the Electro and Harry Osborne plotlines might as well be in separate movies. This movie is so stuffed with plot and characters that it has two climaxes and an extended coda. And none of it means anything. 


Andrew Garfield is a great actor. But this movie proves that great casting alone cannot save a movie. 


I did not hate this one - I did not mind Dane DeHaan’s performance as Harry - but aside from a few sequences I was checked out.


If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012)

Peter Parker's parents disappeared years ago, leaving the young boy (Andrew Garfield) to be raised by his Aunt and Uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen).

Now a teenager, Peter is obsessed with learning the secret behind his parents' disappearance.

A trail of clues leads him to OzCorp, his parents' former employer, and a fateful encounter with a spider...



These reviews were hard to write. And then I watched the Amazing run. Happy New Year!


A reboot that is more interested in creating an interconnected mythology than a dramatic storyline, Amazing Spider-Man is so unnecessarily complicated it made me miss Spider-Man 3.


I remember liking this movie the first time I watched it but compared with the Raimi trilogy, this movie is riddled with problems. 


The decision to go back to the origin is pointless, and the filmmakers seem to realize it. 


The first Spider-Man keeps the origin simple and makes the story about Peter learning from it (the phrase we do not need to repeat).


This movie adds a conspiracy element involving Peter’s parents, and creates a series of connections around how Peter gets his powers that it becomes incidental. 


There is a sense of predestination to the story which undermines the concept of Peter Parker being an ordinary guy.


The characterisation of Parker is all over the place - I could not track who he was at the beginning and how he changed - he comes across as a bully half the time (his interaction with the car thief is played for laughs but he is antagonizing the guy like he wants to hurt him. It comes off as sadistic. 


That is the big problem with this version - at no point is he relatable.


Garfield is a great actor but the film has no handle on Peter’s arc.


It seems like an attempt to differentiate this Peter from the Maguire version, who could come off as a tad too virtuous, but this character comes across as an asshole.


You get a real sense of the filmmakers’ priorities by how they treat the familiar players: 


Uncle Ben and Aunt May are sidelined to such a degree that I could not orient myself in terms of Peter’s character and his moral compass. Maybe it is the Raimi effect, but Uncle Ben’s role in defining Peter’s sense of morality - and the weight of his death - feels completely pointless in this iteration.


It feels like every scene where they are together, Peter is obsessed with his father’s work. Maguire’s Peter abuses Ben by ridiculing his role raising him, but it never felt like a long-running resentment. Garfield’s Peter is solely interested in his parents and seems to treat his Aunt and Uncle like they are secondary people he just has to deal with occasionally. 


After Ben dies, I did not feel like Peter felt a great sense of guilt after his death - as with everything else, Ben’s death is subordinate to Peter’s quest to figure out the mystery behind his parent’s work and disappearance. 


And once Ben is gone, Aunt May might as well not exist. Within the world of the movie, it is also clear that Peter completely ignores her.   At the end of the movie, it is revealed that he hasn’t even told May that he has been going out with Gwen. 


Part of the problem may be the editing - I found this movie hard to follow and it becomes a real mess in the middle of the movie. After the bridge attack it feels like we are missing connective tissue. 


Out of the blue, villain Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and Parker are at odds and Parker has figured out that Connors is the Lizard. All of Connors’ fears of losing his job have vanished, and it becomes harder to figure out why he is doing anything. It was at this point in the movie  that it became clear that Gwen has no character of her own - she is a smart girl who likes Peter, but other than that, there is not a lot going on. Gwen seems to exist solely in terms of the chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. She is a smart woman who likes Peter, and that is about it. It is more obvious in the sequel but here she just feels like a token love interest. Mary Jane was such a key part of the Sam Raimi movies, and you could always track her character as she grew and changed. She felt like a character who did not exist to be a romantic partner. Stone is charming in the role, but there is nothing more to Gwen Stacey as a character. 


Maybe this is an effect of watching the Sam Raimi movies right before going into this one (my brain is fried) but he takes time to build up to  key moments and pivotal scenes - even Spider-Man 3 takes time for Harry Osborne’s death. 


Meanwhile, this movie botches what should be pivotal moments. Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) death, Spider-Man figuring out his powers, the first confrontation with the Lizard…


I am not listing examples - these are seemingly important scenes that I can barely remember. 


This movie constantly in a hurry, blasting through important story beats so quickly that none of them land or feel connected.


There are some nice moments - Spider-Man creating a web in the sewer so he can pick up movement; the slo-mo shot of Spidey fighting the Lizard in the background while an oblivious Stan Lee listens to music in the foreground. But these moments feel disconnected.


The storytelling in The Amazing Spider-Man lacks a sense of focus, of building toward something. It is just a vaguely connected series of scenes. It enraged me that after the chaos of the storyline, the movie had the temerity to end on an English class in which the teacher is talking about different types of storytelling and familiar story structures.


This movie feels like a stop-gap - a way to hold onto the Spider-Man rights. Watching it a decade later, The Amazing Spider-Man feels more tied to the trends of its era. The cinematography is dark and the colour palette is muted; the filmmakers trying to evoke Christopher Nolan’s Batman, while the overarching narrative evokes the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 


Taking inspiration from contemporary pop culture is in itself no bad thing - I would not have Casino Royale to rant about, otherwise - but nothing about The Amazing Spider-Man feels organic or beneficial to the story and the characters.


It comes down to one question: What is it about?


In the Sam Raimi-verse, the key theme is the responsibility that comes with great power. All of Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s conflicts from that central theme. With The Amazing Spider-Man, I have no idea what the movie is about.


I wonder what would have happened if Sony had taken a leaf out of their Bond regency (they were the co-financier of ⅘ of the Daniel Craig movies) and done a soft reboot rather than redoing the origin story. 


The cast are solid, but they are lost in a confused story with multiple threads that are left dangling for (multiple) future sequels.


The sequel’s problems have been well-advertised but The Amazing Spider-Man has similar issues when it comes to its narrative structure and character development.


If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.