“Suicide” ain’t painless, though Margot Robbie nearly saves the day

7 Aug

 

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You don’t have to be mad to work here, but… Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad

In further despatches from the Department of Faint Praise (see Star Trek: Beyond), Suicide Squad is not as bad as some reviews would lead you to think. That’s a long way from saying it’s actually good, since some of the reviews are real stinkers, but here’s what works:

* Margot Robbie is flat-out fantastic. Whenever she’s on screen, you feel anything could happen. She also, uniquely in recent DC films, looks like she’s having fun, which gives the audience licence to do so, too.

* And, actually, having set out to write a list of positive bullet points, I can’t think of another. Robbie’s performance alone is worth the price of the popcorn: her Harley Quinn is mercurial, flirtatious, conflicted, funny – and, like Hamlet, she is intriguingly but mad north-north-west . It makes you long for a Bonnie and Clyde-style spin-off movie with her and Jared Leto’s Joker (underused in Suicide Squad).

Will Smith is as charismatic as ever, but you feel his star power has got in the way: he plays Deadeye, the world’s most wanted hit-man, as a slushy sentimentalist who just wants his daughter to be proud of him – got forbid Smith should portray someone actually bad. None of the other characters are sufficiently developed amidst all the shooting and shouting to have much of anything interesting to recommend them.

You realise yet again what a great writer Joss Whedon is, to have juggled all the big personalities of the Avengers films, giving them all story arcs, intra-group conflicts, and some sense of an interior life. In Suicide Squad they are just a collection of characters in search of character.

Even by comic-book movie standards, the plot is banal: magical super-villain The Enchantress is presented first as all-powerful, but in the end is defeated far too easily. Plus Cara Delevingne, whose human alter-ego, Dr June Moon, is about as believable as an archaeologist as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough, is too slight a figure to carry off such a role.

And of course the film is shot in the Zack Snyder palette of dark and darker, whereas the subject matter surely called for something more day-glo.

I could go on. Bottom line, the first half of the film, in which the squad is being assembled, is really quite fun – though the imminent remake of The Magnificent Seven must be peed off at the lift. In the second half, frankly, I began to long for the closing credits to roll.

 

 

Why Star Trek: Beyond can’t tell its art from its Elba

25 Jul
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For God’s sake, Jim, I’m a liberal not a fascist! Spock and Bones with newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) in Star Trek: Beyond 

Really, internet? Does no one apart from me find it peculiar that, in Star Trek: Beyond, the Enterprise crew keep talking about strength in unity? They are the ultimate liberals – Simon Pegg, who wrote the script this time round, even recently said the Enterprise crew would have been unanimous Remainers in the Brexit vote – and yet this slogan is the very definition of fascism. A “fasces” in Latin is a bound-together bundle of sticks – one stick is easily snapped, a bundle is not.

The saying and its application also feel like an inferior retread of “the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”. Perhaps it’s one of Pegg’s many deliberate homages to the original series, but it comes across as lazy.

Indeed, the plot seems even more perfunctory in conception and risible in denouement than usual. The much-touted new character, who shares pride of place on the poster with Kirk and Spock, has no more depth than any other identikit bad-ass martial-arts babe (with, admittedly, a talent for engineering thrown in). The dialogue, though fitfully entertaining, is never as laugh-out-loud funny as you would expect from being off the Pegg, though in his defence he was simultaneously filming Mission Impossible at the time of writing and had to be talked out of resigning by producer JJ Abrams. And while the last Star Trek film had the more nuanced Benedict Cumberbatch, Kraal is a painfully stereotypical villain, with a face where you can’t tell its arse from its Elba.

Ah well. Star Trek: Beyond still has much to recommend it. Hugely superior production design, for a start. The “snowglobe in space” that houses millions of people in a suspiciously fragile-looking bubble one-ups the curved space base in Elysium with a dizzying convergence of gravity-defying walkways, shimmering lakes and bendy skylines. A crashing Enterprise similarly upends gravitational logic to have Kirk climbing floors and walking on walls. The action scenes, courtesy of Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin, are faultless.

Overall, as a life-long Trekker, did I enjoy it? Hell yes. I mean Jeez – I remember what it’s like to sit through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the cinema. Criticism be damned: may the current incarnation of bold goers live long and prosper.

Television live: a hefty helping of Marquee Moon, but hold the noodles

14 Jun

marquee_moon_album_coverTelevision’s Marquee Moon was one of the formative albums of my university days: its different musical parts interlocking with the precision of a Swiss watch, it was nominally part of the New York punk scene yet boasted virtuoso musicianship and guitar solos. And the lyrics! Mostly elliptical fever dreams from some bad trip, but with a smart sense of humour: “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo”.

At a hot and sweaty Brixton Electric on Sunday night, I discovered I was not alone. Right from the jaunty opening track, where on the chorus the audience spontaneously shouted “Prove It!” as one, you knew you were among like minds.

Television ripped through their main hits, including every song on Marquee Moon, all at a slightly faster pace better suited for live play. Elevation and See No Evil were particular stand-outs, with Verlaine’s skittering guitar as fresh as it was 39 years ago. Just as the Chinese have a whole different musical system from ours, it’s always seemed as though Verlaine was literally off the scale – playing a series of (mostly minor) notes that bear no resemblance to the conventional octave.

Some of his solos seemed adapted and improvised on the night, which keeps it fresh, but the downside of this became apparent during a ponderous instrumental segment towards the end that had many people heading for the smoking patio.

This wasn’t mere guitar noodling. This was Tom Verlaine heading to his local Noodle Bar and ordering every item on the menu. Oodles of noodles. With a sheet of doodles to go.

But all was forgiven with the thrilling climax: Marquee Moon itself. Again, played a little faster, lacking some of the usual tight control (brilliant drummer Billy Ficca did seem a little sloppy at times), it nevertheless all came together during the final slow guitar instrumental, where the backing builds and builds into a giant wall of sound, with Verlaine adding a slight change to the final chord sequence that achieves an even more satisfying resolution.

“Prove it!” the audience had shouted at the outset. By the end, Television had nothing left to prove.

Television play tonight (June 12) at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-On-Sea

In praise of Shane Black: Nice Guys finish first

9 Jun
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Double act: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in Shane Black’s Nice Guys

Nice Guys is flat-out one of the funnest films I’ve seen in yonks, and good enough to “do a Tarantino” – in other words, resurrect failing careers. Russell Crowe, as a bear-like, punch-happy enforcer who dreams of becoming a more respectable private eye, hasn’t made such a great fist of a part in years; Ryan Gosling, as the private eye who’s not half as smart as his teenage daughter, displays a gratifying flair for comedy after a string of overly po-faced films.

Set in the ‘70s, it’s the thriller-comedy that rare Paul Thomas Anderson misfire Inherent Vice wishes it was: funny, smart, stylish and very odd – in the best possible way. The central hedonistic party scene alone would be worth the price of your ticket.

But then, if you’ve been following the career of Shane Black, this should come as no surprise.

Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon at the age of 23. Have defined the action movie for a decade to come, he then set about attempting to demolish it: The Last Action Hero was, as I described it to a Time Out colleague following a screening in 1993, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career suicide note”. Brilliant and post-modern, it mercilessly took the piss out of the regular Arnie action audience. It also contains what is still my favourite line in movie history, during the imagined trailer for a Hamlet played by Arnie: “To be… or not to be.” Pause. Clicks open a Zippo to light cigar. “Not to be.” The whole castle of Elsinore explodes in flames.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) ended Black’s career for a while. It was a lot of fun, but it, too, bombed (relative to its massive budget), perhaps because audiences were still not yet ready for a woman (Geena Davis) in a lead action role. Black made his comeback as writer and director in 2005 with the modestly budgeted neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was well received even if it didn’t set the box-office alight. But it starred Robert Downey Jr., which was key to Black writing and directing Iron Man 3, which grossed more than a billion dollars. If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil the reveal, but the secret behind Ben Kingsley’s villainous The Mandarin is pure Shane Black.

So now Black is back, with the next Predator on his slate as well as Marvel’s Doc Savage. He’s had a dizzying rise – his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight netted him $4 million – and a precipitous fall. He’s still only 54. Long may he reign.

 

With a bang, not a whimper: X-Men Apocalypse

21 May

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It’s the end of the world, and I feel fine. X-Men: Apocalypse is a toweringly enjoyable addition to the Marvel canon, despite having been met with less than universal raves from critics. It may not have the sheer pizzaz of Deadpool, but it has its funny and self-aware moments (“the third movies always suck,” says one, coming out of Return of the Jedi): and you’d be hard-pushed to beat the bravura sequence in which Quicksilver rescues his fellow mutants before a gigantic explosion hits, still finding time to strike cool poses along the way.

The action set-pieces are the equal of any Marvel film, but it’s not all fights and explosions: there’s plenty of time for some quality emoting from the universally excellent cast. More than that, Bryan Singer conjures some marvellously cinematic moments from the turmoil – unlike with Zak Snyder, slo-mo is used for beauty and awe rather than violence.

I dunno, am I raving too much?

My body says no: a couple of times I realised I’d been sitting on the edge of my seat, jaw dropped open. I laughed out loud a few times.

My head says maybe yes: the plot is pretty stupid, when it’s not non-existent; the villain is cardboard, despite Oscar Isaac’s best efforts; and the ending a little deus ex machina.

But frankly my dear, I had a blast.

Captain America: Civil War has a little help from your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man

29 Apr

 

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Did Harry Hill cause all this? Friends become foes in Captain America: Civil War

Early reviews of Captain America: Civil War have been such raves, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment. Certainly at the IMAX 3D five-minutes-past-midnight screening I went to last night in Leicester Square, the crowd whooped and stayed in droves till the Easter egg at the end of the long, long credits, despite it by then being long after 3am. And certainly it’s a lot better than Batman V Superman, whose premise it uncannily emulates: humans fear superhumans, try to put the dampeners on their tendency to destroy tall buildings with a single bound, and inter-superhero struggle results.

 

But I miss the light touch Joss Whedon brought to the first Avengers movie – an uncannily sure blend of focused plot, mighty action sequences, sparky dialogue, and sometimes unanticipated characterisation. The villainous plot behind Captain America: Civil War is, in the cold light of day, so contrived, silly and unreal to any genuine motivation as to be not remotely worth explaining. And though there are jokes, and thrilling action sequences, there’s little that feels really original or fresh.

Am I asking too much? It’s a sign of Marvel’s extraordinary output that I’m even expecting all these things in a comic-book blockbuster. Definitely it’s terrific fun and definitely it’s worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing; a four-star sort of rating. It takes off big time after a couple of hours, when some unexpected Marvel characters join the clash of clans – including a little help from your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, back with Marvel Studios at last and paving the way for yet another reboot of the franchise in 2017. It’s delicious seeing how each uses his or her special powers to counter the others’.

But to say it’s the best Marvel movie yet (© Empire magazine)? Let’s hope Marvel Studios have more tiger still left in the tank. 

Set The Thames on Fire goes LOCO with Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips and Sadie Frost

23 Apr

 

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The flooded, dystopian London of Set The Thames on Fire

“I saw the script, which called for me to play a transvestite, paedophile drug addict, and thought: ‘typecast again’!”

This is Noel “The Mighty Boosh” Fielding in the Q&A session following the UK premiere on Thursday of Set The Thames on Fire, answering how he came to be in a movie that comes on like Withnail and I directed by Terry Gilliam by way of Peter Greenaway and set in a dystopian retro-Dickensian London in which the Thames has burst its banks.

The BFI Southbank is an unexpectedly conventional setting in which to see one of the most original, daring and visually ravishing British debuts in years. Set The Thames on Fire was opening the LOCO comedy festival, and that was peculiar too, since despite boasting Noel Fielding and Sally Phillips in the cast, and having moments of the blackest humour, it’s as much tragedy as comedy: “An agony in three acts”, as it rather grandly announces at the start.

“I’ll turn you into a glove puppet next time!” Fielding calls out to a man in a gimp suit escaping from him in terror, in his key scene. “I’ll wear you like a fucking suit!” In pigtails and a frilly petticoat over fishnet tights and a gigantic white codpiece, Fielding is equal parts terrifying and hilarious; but at the Q&A, leaping down the aisles in silver boots to offer the mike to questioners, so clearly wanting to be centre-stage that the film-makers eventually invited him up to share the platform – “You might regret that, I’m very drunk” – he is simply hilarious.

Sally Phillips was also in the audience. Playing a fortune-teller whose father used to run the town, before the hateful, bloated, perverted Impresario took over, she gives the film its moral heart and emotional charge. She’s a revelation. In one scene she recalls Bob Hoskins in his magnificent long closing close-up in The Long Good Friday.

Sally appreciated the challenge of a non-comedic role. “I was expecting to play the whoreish landlady,” she said, of the part which went to the film’s co-producer, Sadie Frost. “But Ben [Charles Edwards, the director] swapped us round. I was astonished by how confident and comforting he was to work for in every area – and what an incredible-looking film it is from one so young.”

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Makers of Set The Thames on Fire interviewed, left to right: writer/composer Al Joshua, director Ben Charles Edwards, producer/actor Sadie Frost, and comedian Noel Fielding; LOCO co-founder Jonathan Wakeham standing, right.

Sadie Frost, too, was happy to big up her young director. “I’ve known Ben a long time,” she said, “and he’s so comfortable directing the cast and crew. No one’s made me into a muse before – but he did! I’ve been in every short film he’s made. We [at Blonde to Black Pictures] saw talent in him but thought he needed some discipline, so we said if you jump through this hoop and that hoop we’ll make a feature with you.”

The hoop project, however, worked only so far. Ben’s never been afraid to bend a few rules to protect the film he wants to make. “To get it commissioned,” he said in answer to a question about the film’s spectacular look, “I stood in front of the  producers and just lied! I said there would be just six special effects – I think in the end there were more like 104.”

Al Joshua, who wrote the screenplay, based the main characters of Art and Sal on himself and Ben – they shared a flat together in east London years ago. A brilliant musician who had previously achieved cult success with the band Orphans & Vandals, he also took over duties as composer when the original score commissioned failed to match the film’s romantic but decidedly off-kilter tone, by which time he had only a couple of weeks to come up with the whole thing.

“Some of the melodies had been in my head a long time,” Al said. “But I didn’t even have a computer , so Ben gave me an iPad with his rough cut on it, and I sat there with a guitar and piano. Music has to pull the whole thing together. There’s a main theme that reoccurs in different forms – there’s a waltz at one point, piano at the end – and which sums up Art’s character.”

Al proved even stubborner than Ben when it came to protecting his vision. “I turned up to the derelict studio where he and the musicians were recording the score,” said Ben, “and said I wanted to hear it, but Al put a padlock on the door and wouldn’t let me in!”

Somehow, it all came together far better than all involved dared hope; Sadie revealed she is in the final throes of negotiating a distribution deal that would give Set The Thames on Fire a September release.

It’s not, perhaps, the easiest sell: the main character is gay, it’s peopled with bizarre grotesques, and it has more uses of the “c” word than the BBFC may appreciate. But when so many low-budget British films re-tread the same old gangster, horror or kitchen-sink clichés, it’s incredibly refreshing to see one that aims for the stars. This is one of the most startlingly original and ravishing films to come out of Britain since Ben Wheatley. Judging by the rapturous response of the packed house at the BFI Southbank, there is absolutely an audience for it.

Show it, to paraphrase Field of Dreams, and they will come.

 

 

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