Friday, 13 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Happy Death Day & The Foreigner

Two movies, one moron. Let's go.

Happy Death Day
After she is killed by a masked figure, college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) slowly begins to realise that she is trapped in a time loop, forced to repeat the day she died (which also happens to be her birthday) over and over again.

One day, someone is going to write a book about Blumhouse, the studio responsible for this movie, Paranormal Activity, The Purge and Insidious. And I look forward to reading that book, because aside from Marvel Studios, Blumhouse is the only production company I can think of with an identifiable 'authorial' stamp - if Marvel is classic MGM, with its musical unit, then Blumhouse is American International Pictures, churning out genre fare that makes up for a lack of stars and budget with interesting concepts and a focus on meeting audience expectations.

The acting is all strong, the script does a good job of following a similar route to Groundhog Day (having the main character go from Mean Girl to a better person) and unlike the last horror movie I reviewed, Happy Death Day has a sense of fun, and finds humour in the fascistic head of the sorority. It's not too hard to see where the movie is going, but there are a few twists and obstacles which keep the movie involving.

One thing which I love about this movie is the budget: 4.8 million dollars. Think of all the bloated, overlong blockbusters that come out every year. I really hope that the Blumhouse model starts to trickle out to the rest of the industry (or Universal does what Disney did with Pixar and bring Blumhouse creatives in to run their operations). Because of the low-budget, the movie sticks to the smallest version of its concept and thus it feels more intimate and believable.

And it is a testament to the movie's strengths that the villain remains effective - the baby mask is creepy as hell (side note: what school decides to make a baby the mascot?), and the reveal of who it is makes for a nice button (and leads to another great joke).

There is nothing really at fault here - this is a solid genre picture that ticks all the boxes but feels like a fleshed-out story. There are a few hacky jump scares, and there are moments of over-cutting which undermine the suspense but overall, it's a just fun ride. It does not push the envelope, but it does not need to. It is a fun time, and another strong entry in Blumhouse's horror canon.

The Foreigner
After his daughter is killed in an IRA explosion, a Chinese businessman draws upon his past life as a government killing machine to hunt down the perpetrators, while also evading a massive Pierce Brosnan and his equally ginormous gun.

Or at least this is what the poster promised.
The only reason this movie is on my radar is because of the director, Martin Campbell - if the name is unfamiliar, he directed the original Edge of Darkness miniseries, GoldenEye, Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale. While it is not a great movie, The Foreigner is a great showcase for Campbell.

He has developed a dramatically-focused minimalism in his action movies which stands in contrast to the bombast of contemporary action cinema.

Campbell's work is notable for its focus on the essential work parts of continuity story-telling - action is never there for its own sake: There is no speed-ramping, crash-zooms or computer generated 'God's eye' camera moves to ad visual panache. In Campbell's movies, the camera is in just the right place, moves only when it has to, and tied together by razor-sharp editing. It is a style best suited for Hollywood-style narratives, which is probably why Campbell is less heralded - no one gets prizes for economy.

He feels like a man out of time, with a no-nonsense aesthetic better suited to the action movies of the past - not just the seventies or eighties, but the samurai films of Kurosawa and the westerns of Leone. What has prevented Campbell from attaining a similar level of recognition is a lack of consistent material. For every GoldenEye there is a Vertical Limit; for every Casino Royale a Green Lantern; for every Mask of Zorro a Legend of Zorro.

Thankfully The Foreigner finds Campbell in great form, with a stripped-down action thriller that is perfectly suited to his talents. And it helps that he has Jackie Chan, who might be the perfect leading man for his style.

What has always fascinated me about Campbell's work is the way his camera and the edit feel perfectly choreographed to the speed and movement of his performers - think back to the lithe athleticism of Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, the balletic elegance of Antonio Banderas in Mask of Zorro or the parkour chase of Casino Royale. Watching Chan and Campbell's camera move together felt like watching a great dance pair, every move by the actor perfectly captured by the director's frame.

Campbell's best movies are centred on violent professionals who are defined by action rather than words. Jackie Chan has built a career on body movement, developing a brand of physical comedy derived from his training in Peking Opera and a love of silent comedy. More importantly for this movie, Chan's comedy is based on his reactions to the predicaments he gets into. Unlike other martial arts stars, Chan always comes across as an everyman who does not want to be there. And while he can do some amazing physical feats, he is still fallible and vulnerable - half of his fights involve him getting punched and hurt.

While The Foreigner is a drama, Chan's style is perfectly attuned to Campbell's style. Campbell shoots in wide shots, allowing action to play out. It is a closer fit to Chan's traditional aesthetic, but Campbell does not share Chan's emphasis building drama (and comedy) through extended choreography. Campbell's style is all about pushing the story forward through editing, with the action reduced to as few moving parts as possible. It helps make the sequences feel less choreographed and more immediate.

does contains one sterling example of this unity of director and performer - Chan's escape from his guest room. Chan has always been an everyman, giving his action sequences a sense of pain and vulnerability - despite his incredible physicality. Whereas that quality has been used for comedy, it is also perfectly suited to a straight action drama. Throughout this sequence, it never feels like Chan can outmatch his attackers. He is clearly physically more capable, but Campbell makes sure to stage the action in tight spaces - an attic, a stairwell, a kitchen - so that Chan feels like he could be believably hurt or killed.

Campbell's underselling of action also allows for wonderful grace notes of comedy, and his unobtrusive visual style works for Chan's physical timing. While the escape sequence is tense, the sequence is broken down into various stages which work as the set-ups and payoffs to jokes. The audience laughed throughout the sequence, as Chan found a way out of trouble, or lost the advantage. It is perfectly paced action, that is not based merely on action - Campbell's style and Chan's choreography allow the sequence to breath, and allow for some wonderful grace notes of comedy: Chan twisting around a pole after falling off a roof; Chan leaping down the stairs as his confused opponent tries to catch up with him; shoving a man out a window. All great punchlines to the mayhem, and feel of a piece with similar moments in Campbell's previous work.

While it has its share of gunfights and beatdowns, The Foreigner is more of a political thriller than a straight-up action film. This is a revenge flick in which an older leading man avenges a loved one (ala Taken). What makes this movie stand out - aside from Chan's casting - is the movie's context: the theme of revenge is extrapolated to include the history of the Irish Troubles, and their ongoing reverberations in the present.

While there are short, brutal set pieces peppered throughout the film, much of its focus is on Pierce Brosnan's Deputy First Minister, an IRA veteran trying to hunt down the men responsible for the initial bombing while keeping his old comrades onside and maintaining the peace. Brosnan's complex performance - untrustworthy, scheming, and coldly pragmatic - carries most of the film's dramatic weight as Chan's actions increase the pressure he is under  to preserve the status quo.

Looking across his filmography, Campbell's minimalistic approach extends to the performances. In a piece on Sergio Leone (published in Empire magazine a few years ago), Campbell referred to the influence Leone had on the way he conceived character without dialogue. Brosnan can lean into ham, but here he underplays, turning his character into a ticking time bomb. Under Campbell's cool eye, Brosnan is fantastic.

The movie's one real flaw is that the real-life context does set the movie's more formulaic moments in relief - Chan's tragic backstory is so overblown (not only did his daughter die from an IRA bomb; his wife died in childbirth and his other children were murdered by pirates). Juxtaposed with Brosnan's storyline, with its references to IRA bombing campaigns, betrayals and backroom deals, the protagonist's story feels a little silly. Chan's performance and Campbell's under-selling of this melodrama mitigates this disjunct, but it is still there. It's the one major problem with the movie.

The Foreigner is no masterpiece, but with Chan and Brosnan on good form, and under Martin Campbell's deft hand, it is a solid genre thriller which is a far classier and more mature product than its generic title and plot may suggest. It does not move the dial in terms of originality, and might be too grim for some, but the mix of political intrigue and action make this a solid time-waster.
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