Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sausage Party

‘Sausage Party’ is wrong on every aisle. Hell, it’s wrong on every shelf, refrigerated section, display unit and available till. It’s wrong up and down the store and right out into the car park. You could even say that it makes the entire concept of consumable goods and retail outlets seem wrong.

It’s also – when you get beyond the coarse language, the racial stereotypes, the frequently grotesque imagery and the food porn orgy that acts as the film’s literal climax – smarter than it has any right to be, as well as being genuinely funny.

(A word on the racial stereotypes: ‘Sausage Party’ deals in equal opportunity offensiveness. Every nationality gets it, from the Hitlerian German products to Great Britain’s representation as an aisle of tea bags – and, yes, they aver a preference for tea-bagging. This, then, isn’t the obvious puerile point-scoring of, say, Charlie Hebdo where the gays and the Muslims are singled out for a bashing time after time while everyone outside of the immediate hate-speak demographic gets away scot free.)

Plotwise, things begin with the unrequited passion between hotdog sausage Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen) and hotdog bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who are convinced that they’ll find consummation when they’re picked by some happy shopper and taken into the Great Beyond (the sun-dappled expanse outside the car park). Thanks to a Disney-esque song intoned by the comestibles just prior to opening time every morning, all the products on sale in a Walmart-like store believe something transcendental awaits. Rather than the food processor, the oven or the pan of boiling water.

The first crack in the fabric of their collective delusion occurs when a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to the store. Suffering the food version of PTSD, it struggles to enunciate the horrors it’s witnessed. Its warnings are further detracted from by a shopping trolley collision – played out in hilariously bad taste as a spoof of the opening sequence of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – which leaves various food products dead (the bananas who unpeel to reveal ghost faces are fucking creepier than any horror movie I’ve seen this year), injured or thrown loose from their packaging and desperate to get back to their aisle before they’re swept up and binned. It also leaves an anal douche (Nick Kroll) damaged and denied procurement by a particularly amply proportioned lady. The douche blames Frank for the collision and swears revenge.

Meanwhile, Frank’s slightly deformed fellow sausage Barry (Michael Cera) undergoes an equally onerous misadventure that takes him from the environs of the store to a middle class suburb home then across the city and into the shitty apartment of a stoner (James Franco) whose copious intake of hallucinogenic substances renders him able to see the food in its anthropomorphosised state. The half-dead pizza slice that crawls its way across the greasy box, berating him for eating its legs) proves quite the head-fuck for him. Barry witnesses human/food brutality at first hand and encounters a Stephen Hawking-like piece of gum (Scott Underwood) who provides scientific enlightenment at odds with the quasi-religious indoctrination that has kept the food happy and malleable back at the store.

In the meantime, Frank and Brenda join forces with ideologically divided Jewish bread product Sammy Bagel Jnr (Edward Norton) and Muslim lavash Kareem (David Krumholz) – “you have occupied the whole of the west aisle” the latter opines – as well as lesbian taco Teresa (Salma Hayek) who has the hot tamales for Brenda.

I sincerely apologise for typing that last sentence.

How Frank and co. and Barry and his rag-tag crew of new acquaintances reunite – Barry having surfed a character arc from chicken-livered short-arse to Guevara-like revolutionary – essentially forms a quest narrative, with both sausages essentially seeking enlightenment. Barry, as noted, achieves his scientifically (albeit with a large dollop of vengeful hatred), Frank via a trippy encounter with a bottle of firewater (Bill Hader) and a power ballad sung by a meat loaf. The meat loaf would do anything for love but he wouldn’t d--- … but you saw that one coming, didn’t you?

‘Sausage Party’ is a blunt and frequently unsophisticated movie – let’s face it, this flick offers a talking condom (post-use, I hasten to add) and a toilet roll that cringes away from Barry, declaring “you don’t want to know” what it’s been through – whose co-directors (Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon) and co-writers (Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) seem hellbent on offending just about everyone. But damned if they don’t – almost by accident – create a cluster of characters who are so winningly brought to life that you can’t help but root for them. Not only this, but they achieve the kind of pro-atheism argument that would make Bill Maher weep. Kareem’s reluctant relinquishing of the seventy-seven bottles of extra virgin olive oils waiting for him in the Great Beyond (“but my flaps will be dry! I cannot have dry flaps!”) should, on paper, be Islamophobia writ large; but between Krumholz’s performance and the fact that the same stick is applied equally to all characters, it’s an oddly poignant moment.

The final unity of the foodstuff – all belief systems scrapped in the face of a common enemy – is a thing of beauty, a Marxist victory rendered as if Leni Reifenstahl’s politics had swung to the polar opposite. The means by which the victory is celebrated, however, doesn’t so much cross the boundaries of good taste as demolish them. It makes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ look like a teddy bears’ picnic and the hardened carnivore might find him or herself considering the hitherto unthinkable option of vegetarianism.

But even then, what happens to the carrots … Oh dear God, won’t somebody think of the carrots?!?!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Don’t Breathe

Life in Michigan is so shit for twenty-somethings Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minette) that they embark upon a series of house robberies in order to fund their relocation to, and standard of living in, California. Or least, life is shit enough for Rocky to risk it all for a way out – her mother’s the personification of white trash, her step-father-in-waiting sports swastika tattoos, and her prepubescent sister (or maybe stepsister) is looking at another decade of deprivation if Rocky doesn’t make something happen.

Is life shit for Money? Who knows? He’s what a filmmaker bordering on his forties thinks a millennial in thrall to the thug life acts like. He postures and seems to enjoy criminality and thinks he’s a big man for packing a gun. He refers to said item as “chrome”. That’s all you really need to know about Money. That and the fact that he calls himself “Money”.

Is life shit for Alex? Not really. His dad owns a financially successful home security business that, with a modicum of application and self-discipline, he could be running himself in a decade’s time. But wait, Alex is hung up on Rocky even though she’s Money’s girl (I was a little bit sick in my mouth just typing that sentence), and therefore he risks the most, ripping off the spare keys and alarm codes to various moneyed homesteads.

The heists this threesome pull follow the same pattern: they let themselves in with the spare key, deprogram the alarm, steal enough in saleable goods (never cash) that if they’re caught it’ll be a misdemeanour rather than serious jail time, let themselves out, then hurl a stone through the window to trigger the alarm (thus drawing attention away from Alex’s father’s company) as they make their getaway.

So far so good. At least Rocky has been given motivation and a reason to risk it all. Granted, there’s not quite enough frisson between them to justify Alex’s infatuation, but Levy is an attractive and charismatic enough presence that you can believe he’d carry a torch. Still, Alex of all of them has the most to lose and takes the biggest risk for the smallest yield, so already the film strains credulity purely it needs to explain how these tweenie-robbers can bypass alarm codes.

(Seriously, all Alex needs to do is wait till Money gets hauled off to jail – he’s stupid enough for said outcome to be a foregone conclusion – get her hired at his old man’s firm, put a deposit on a place of their own and be a good uncle to Rocky’s baby sis and it’s happy ever after.)

But this is the kind of movie in which the characters are smart and resourceful when the script needs them to evade a particular situation and utterly fucking stupid when the script needs them to get caught. And everything in ‘Don’t Breathe’ develops because the script requires it rather than as a result of decisions made by characters who are, y’know, acting in character.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After an archetypal robbery from which our so-called heroes get away clean, director Fede Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, establish the set up with commendable efficiency: in a depressed area of town, where virtually every property in the immediate vicinity stands empty, a Gulf War veteran, blinded during said conflict, lives in hermit-like solitude. He also stubbornly remains in an economically depressed urban wasteland when the out-of-court settlement from the rich family whose scion his daughter in a drink driving accident has swelled his personal wealth to the tune of almost half a million. A sum that he keeps, in cash, on the premises.

Money, pissed off with fencing the proceeds from previous jobs at a 60% loss on their street value, gets a tip off re: the blind man. Yup, Stephen Lang’s terrifying and brilliantly portrayed character isn’t even given a name. Alex is concerned that it’s a heist too far, but at the risk of losing contact with Rocky acquiesces. The trio wait till after dark, drug the blind man’s dog and break in. Things go south PDQ.

For an all-too-short while, ‘Don’t Breathe’ offers the unalloyed pleasure of a handicapped but still brutally efficient military professional putting every bit of his training, tradecraft and expertise to the test in order to outwit and viciously repel his attackers. Had ‘Don’t Breathe’ continued in this vein – robbers who aren’t necessarily the bad guys suddenly finding themselves targeted by a homeowner who isn’t necessarily the victim – it could have been the subversive genre-redefining home invasion thriller of its time.

As it is, Alvarez throws in a plot twist that dimps the first of several plot holes in the fabric of the film. It’s pretty effective when you’re sitting there in a darkened cinema and everyone else in the auditorium has gasped, but after a moment or two’s reflection it throws up too many unanswered questions. Yes, I can dig that a guy who’s lost his sight would use certain aspects of his military training to overcome his disability; that he’d still have lightning-fast reflexes; and that he’d know the layout of his house down to the last inch of crawlspace. But the big secret his house is hiding … now, that’s entirely different set of logistics. And surely there would have been a police investigation and given his relationship to … But to say anymore would necessitate spoilers.

Which I’m sorely tempted to throw out, because it’s this aspect of the film that transitions ‘Don’t Breathe’ from tense-as-all-hell cat-and-mouse thriller into grubbier territory. As Rocky is separated from her companions, the woman-in-peril scenario takes on a luridly sexual implication. Thereafter, false escapes and recaptures pile up alongside back-from-the-dead moments at a pace frenetic enough to strain credulity even further, not to mention Lang’s visually-challenged antagonist seeming to morph from ruthlessly proficient but still blind ex-soldier treating his home as a battleground, to a fifty-something Michael Myers popping up out of nowhere for maximum scare effective and never mind whether it was physically possible for him to get from location A to location B in anything like the time implied.

Throw on top of this a scene that Alvarez and Sayagues concocted purely for the gross-out factor and its painfully clear that they weren’t confident about being able to sustain suspension and tension for the film’s 89-minute running time and compensated with juvenile torture porn tropes. Which is a damned shame, since ‘Don’t Breathe’ works beautifully as an exercise in tension, with some exemplary sound work. The house is a brilliant creation, and the performances range from decent to very good, with Lang and Levy taking top honours. With its misconceived subplot snipped out and the running time reduced to 75 minutes, it would have been a nerve-shredder of the highest order.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Hell or High Water

About halfway through David Mackenzie’s lean and introspective crime thriller, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his much put-upon half-Indian/half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – “I’ll get to the Mexican when I’ve used up the Indian insults” Marcus avers in a moment of breathtakingly casual racism – decide to take a hands on approach to the series of bank robberies they’re investigating and stake out one of the handful of branches of the Texas Midland that hasn’t been targeted yet. During their stay at the economically depressed small town said branch caters to, Marcus and Alberto take in the delights of the most depressing motel this side of ‘Vacancy’ and a restaurant whose menu is marginally less limited than its waitress’s customer service skills. As their sojourn drags on, Hamilton playing out his string as an avoidance technique (his mandatory and unwanted retirement is imminent), they get to discussing small town life. Marcus can see a kind of dimestore poetry to it; Alberto is scathing: “Everything in the hardware store costs twice as much as Home Depot and there’s one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress.”

This, more than any of the billboards advocating high-interest loans or debt management services that various characters drive past, pins down the subject Mackenzie and scripter Taylor Sheridan (‘Sicario’) are putting under a microscope. Or should I say that they’re putting it under a microscope, leaving the microscope out in the sun, sitting back with a patience and a commitment to slowburn narrative that evoke the best of 1970s American filmmaking, and letting it squirm for a while.

Here’s another line, prominently featured in the trailer, which pretty much serves as mission statement. Marcus and Alberto are in a diner the perps ate at before a robbery. Marcus takes a good-ole-boy approach to ingratiating himself with the regulars and sounding them out: “How long y’ been living here?” “Long enough,” one of them replies, “to see a bank get robbed that’s been robbin’ me for thirty years.”

Some bank heist movies key into the Robin Hood-style romanticism of the outlaw lifestyle (‘Bonnie and Clyde’), some are studies in logistics and fall-out (‘Heat’), some use the heist as a jumping off point for revelations and political machinations (‘The Bank Job’) and some are laconically subversive (‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’). Now there’s a thought: watch ‘High or High Water’ on a double-bill fronted by ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’: Bridges at the start of his career playing the charismatic wiseass, and Bridges in the maturity of his career, giving a definitive study of ageing, regret and almost sealed-off vulnerability. But I digress. ‘Hell or High Water’ is a bank heist movie where the mechanics of the heist are secondary (though still well-observed: the burial of the various getaway cars is an inspired touch) to the particular branches that get robbed.

It’s no spoiler to introduce our two stick-up merchants: brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard. Toby’s divorced, little contact with his two children and not much going for him. Tanner’s been in and out of jail his entire adult life, no meaningful relationship, no future, and quite frankly even fucking less going for him. Hence his willingness to partner up with his bro for a series of heists engineered to steal small but untraceable sums, the aim being a pot of money that satisfies the bank who are a week away from foreclosing on their late mother’s farmstead, a property that is apparently a source of oil. Toby’s intent is to regain ownership of the land and leave it in trust to his children – to do, in essence, one good thing in a life otherwise defined by failure. Tanner? Well, he just seems to enjoy it.

The brothers have a system worked out: rob bank, hit casino, convert stolen money into chips, play just enough to earn a bit more or lose within acceptable levels, then cash in said chips for a cheque made out to the very bank they fucked over. Crime with a sense of irony. What’s not to love?

What makes ‘Hell or High Water’ fascinating is that neither Toby or Tanner actually stand to make anything out of the heists beyond being able to buy back their birthright. Which is an abject shithole, oil or no oil. Toby wants to shore up the future for his offspring whom he’d previously failed. Toby, as another character says of him, could make enough from a single heist to park a brand-new pick-up truck and a jet-ski in front of his house for no other reason than to spend it all so that he has to go out and steal more money.

In this respect, although the aesthetics of small town Americana are writ large, ‘Hell or High Water’ can be readily identified as the work of a British director. This is the heist movie for the age of austerity. You could transpose the whole thing to the septic sceptred isle relatively easily. Bridges would be the Little England bigot not quite ready to retire to the Costa del Sol (and therefore be a significantly interesting character), and the banks would be, well, the banks.

But maybe I’m stretching a point. As much as ‘Hell or High Water’ seems like a parable for austerity Britain, it’s also chillingly easy to read it as prescient of an America under Trump. A scene where Toby and Tanner deal with armed resistance at a bank swiftly and decisively only to escape getting shot to pieces by a hare’s breadth as they hotfoot it outside and a bunch of townsfolk make like it’s the Alamo all over again is as effective a commentary on open-carrying as you’re likely to see. It’s a scene that evokes the intervention of the pick-up driving fascist rednecks that utterly and irreversibly changes everything in the final season of ‘Breaking Bad’. It’s a scene that culminates in said townsfolk changing their minds the moment the odds are recalibrated. And it’s a scene that entirely hinges on the American love affair with weaponry.

Yet there’s nothing gung-ho about the film. Sure, it depicts machismo; Mackenzie and Sheridan are acutely aware of how men behave around each other – not to mention how abjectly they regard women. (Arguably only Toby transcends this failing, but to talk about the dynamics of a scene towards the very end of the film would be to indulge in a spoiler too far.) Everything – tone, pace, performances, visuals – testifies to how much thought and consideration went into ‘Hell or High Water’. Even a sudden lurch into ‘High Sierra’ territory pays off in a manner that is more evocative of Tommy Lee Jones’s contemporary anti-western ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ – a film I’d have no hesitation in ranking this one alongside.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

From the outset, let me say that I wasn’t all that keen on the first two films in the rebooted franchise. In fact, I’m not that keen on J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker, period. (I’ll give him a pass for ‘Super 8’ but that’s more to do with how likeable its young cast is.) But even then I wondered how much of a trade-up it would actually be to have Justin Lin in the director’s chair … beyond, y’know, a better facility with action scenes and no fucking lens flares.

Turned out it could have been more or less anyone in the director’s chair; what makes ‘Star Trek Beyond’ the best instalment by a mile in the new timeline is Simon Pegg as co-writer of the script. He’s canny enough to keep the banter and interaction between the half dozen central characters to the forefront, and ensure that it’s their ingenuity and camaraderie which provides a response to the immediate threat rather than a rush of effects-driven techno-babble.

Not that the CGI doesn’t show off the budget to the full, particularly in an extended sequence where a rescue mission turns into a battle for survival and the USS Enterprise comes under attack from a ferocious and seemingly indestructible enemy. In short order, the starship is ripped apart, the command deck saucer crash lands in hostile territory, escape pods are swiped out of the sky and their occupants imprisoned, and Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Pegg) find themselves split up behind enemy lines, the latter making contact with Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a scavenger who has managed to evade the hostile forces.

And the hostile forces in question? Well, they’re under the command of Krall (Idris Elba, submerged under prosthetics), who wants to get his hands on a superweapon and wreak havoc on the nearby Yorktown, a Federation starbase that’s an orgasm of production design. Seriously, think Larry Niven’s Ringworld as designed by M.C. Escher. And why does Krall want to unleash hell on this peaceful and dizzyingly detailed settlement? Because he hates the Federation for their philosophy of unity and cooperation, and feels the only way forward is a doctrine of inward-looking fascistic aggressiveness. Which kind of makes ‘Star Trek Beyond’ a sci-fi Brexit parable with the Federation as the EU and Krall as Nigel Farage only more photogenic and in possession of opposable thumbs.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Either way, what ‘Star Trek Beyond’ has is spades is fun (the dialogue zings where in the previous outings it was leaden and self-important) and a genuine sense of adventure. After all, this is a ‘Star Trek’ film which opens with a captain’s log that basically features Kirk going “I’m really really really bored” and even when, quarter of an hour later, his ship’s getting trashed and the odds are overwhelming, Pine conveys a real sense that Kirk would rather be at the epicentre of chaos than doing so paperwork and having an early night.

Speaking of Pine, a combination of script and performance lifts his characterisation of Kirk from annoying wiseass to someone you can actually root for. The rest of the cast do dependable work, though I found Urban – an actor I generally have a lot of time for – somewhat more stilted in his performance than previously. That, however, is my only real gripe.

Well, that and the absence of a semi-colon from the title. But then again ‘Star Trek’ revels in the most famous split infinitive in history, so maybe the Federation has no place for grammar Nazis, and that’s fair enough. This particular pedant had more fun with this movie than other summer tentpole offering this year, so here’s to more Trekking with Lin at the helm and Pegg on writing duties – and, gentlemen, you can do what you like with the English language.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Lights Out

David F. Sandberg’s ‘Lights Out’ shares a few touchstones with ‘The Babadook’: both are debut features extrapolated from an earlier short film; both have as their antagonist a silhouetted almost-human figure with hands tapering to knife-like fingers; and both develop their quotient of horror from the reality of depression and grief. But whereas ‘The Babadook’ demonstrates a stark understanding of how two bereaved people can psychologically gouge chunks out of each other, ‘Lights Out’ uses its depression/grief element merely as a plot device.

The sufferer here is Sophie (Maria Bello), whose husband Paul (Billy Burke) is viscerally despatched in the textile warehouse he manages in an opening sequence that makes good on everything the trailer promised in terms of creepiness, ramped up tension and big scare moments. Sophie’s already in a bad place and behaving irrationally, as evidenced in a facetime conversation between Paul and his son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) just minutes before Paul buys it.

Her behaviour intensifies in the aftermath. She has long and emotive conversation with someone who isn’t there. Then all of sudden mom’s imaginary friend doesn’t seem to be so imaginary anymore and Martin is having problems sleeping. Enter Martin’s adult step-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), long since moved out due to her fractious relationship with Sophie – not to mention a few buried memories that come to the fore when Martin’s school, worried about his well-being, can’t get hold of Sophie and call Rebecca instead.

Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer quickly establish a tug of war for Martin between Sophie and Rebecca, with well-meaning school nurse Emma (Andi Osho) and Rebecca’s sometime consort Brett (Alexander DiPersia) on the sidelines. Kudos to them for not overdoing the melodrama in this respect, and simply being content to sketch in the interrelationships in fast and broad strokes before wheeling the supernatural back on stage and keeping the tension at tendon-wrenching levels for the rest of the film.

Because that’s essentially what ‘Lights Out’ is: a delivery system for squirmily tense set-pieces punctuated by jump-out-of-your-seat moments. It’s an exercise in framing shots for maximum didn’t-something-move-in-the-background-or-didn’t-it head-fuckery. The beautifully simple concept – hammered home in the marketing campaign – is irresistible: creepy thing disappears when the lights go on but gets closer when they go out. And because creepy thing is supernatural, it can cheerfully fuck around with fuse boxes and entire city grids. Not to mention – a little goal-post-shifter that Sandberg and Heisserer introduce late in the game – being impervious to certain forms of artificial lighting.

So efficiently does ‘Lights Out’ get on with the business of first unsettling then outright scaring the piss out of its audience, that it almost seems curmudgeonly to criticise the script, but it has to be said: there is some lazy fucking writing going on here. Rebecca and Brett’s relationship scenes generate all the chemistry and human drama of a newly painted wall slowly drying. The big this-is-who-the-ghost-is-and-why-they’re-haunting-us reveal is pure boilerplate. Rebecca’s backstory is either wastefully undeveloped or the film originally ran 20 minutes longer but the producers got cold feet and chopped it out. The performances aren’t much to write home about, either. Palmer, who I liked a hell of a lot in ‘Warm Bodies’, is one-note. Bello isn’t so much hammy as the entire porcine. DiPersia does what he can with what isn’t so much a role as a few dozen words and not much in the way of stage direction. Bateman arguably does the best work.

The real stars of the show, though, are the effects work and sound design that augment Alicia Vela-Bailey’s performance as the ghost; and Marc Spicer’s cinematography, in which every blurred background and every shadowy corner becomes a lurking place for something unspeakable. I haven’t seen a horror movie in quite some time that plays so effectively and so frequently with false scares, goading you into thinking that a door’s about to open or a face appear in a mirror or a figure emerge from the darkness, only for the anticipated payoff not to happen. Thus are the audience kept on tenterhooks. Thus do the actual scares find their target.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Shallows

With the exception of a scene depicting a pick-up truck’s bumpy passage along a dirt track and an epilogue that’s geographically though not thematically removed, ‘The Shallows’ takes place entirely in one location. Picture it: a unspoilt cove somewhere in Mexico, sand stretching out in a white-gold scimitar, sun-dappled waters, a couple of rock formations a few hundred yards out from the beach, and a buoy about 40 yards away from them.

Into this locale, director Jaume Collet-Serra places young American tourist Nancy Adams (Blake Lively). Nancy’s travelled here in tribute to her recently deceased mother, an avid surfer who last visited the beach while pregnant with Nancy. Her father (Brett Cullen) wants her to come home and resume her studies at medical school. Her sister (Sedona Legge) just wants to go surfing with Nancy. All of this is established during a short facetime conversation while Nancy strolls along the beach. Anthony Jaswinski’s script doesn’t waste words.

While surfing, she meets two Mexican guys who ride the waves with her for a while. They advise her, before they head back to the beach, not to stay out too long. She assures them she’ll just catch one more wave. After they leave, and while Nancy is still sitting on her board, ruminatively looking out across the water, a dolphin bursts into the air near her, then dives back in, followed by several others. Enchanted, she paddles after them … at which point her bittersweet odyssey in tribute to her mother comes to an abrupt end.

The dolphins gone, the water suddenly becomes discoloured and Nancy sees the ravaged carcass of a whale floating ahead of her. Disgusted, she starts heading back to shore. Enter shark, which loses no time in knocking her off the surfboard and causing injury to her leg. She clambers onto the carcass, its skin breaking as tries to find a handhold. The shark responds by going at the dead whale in much the same way that wrecking balls go at buildings marked for total reclaim. Nancy swims like all hell for one of the rock formations, pulling herself out of the water milliseconds before becoming an hors d’oeuvre and exacerbating her wound in the process.

This takes us about 25 minutes into an admirably compact 86-minute feature. Strip out the aforementioned (brief) coda and a few minutes of end credits, and ‘The Shallows’ strands us with Nancy for an unremitting 45 minutes as various shark-driven circumstances compel her to navigate, often at great personal risk, between the two rock formations and the buoy. 45 minutes during which Collet-Serra mines Nancy’s plight for every possible drop of tension.

While the focus is on Nancy using her medical skills to self-treat her wounds (there’s a scene of jewellery-assisted suturing which I’m guessing isn’t NICE-approved) and her wits to try to attract attention or manoeuvre herself closer to shore, the film barely puts a foot wrong. The decision to go full-on ‘Jaws’ towards the end, Nancy wielding a Very pistol and barking out anti-squaloid rhetoric like a non-alcoholic version of Quint who looks better in a bikini, makes for some exciting moments and some questionable ones in roughly equal measure. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you the film’s single biggest misstep (it’s a howler) suffice to say that it’s a poorly composited bit of effects work that wouldn’t look out of place – aesthetically and conceptually – in ‘Sharktopus’.

But the moments where ‘The Shallows’ drops the ball add up to so little screen time that they’re almost cheesily forgivable, particularly when the rest of the film coheres as solidly and efficiently as a delivery system for edge-of-the-seat tension.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Suicide Squad

If David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad’ – the latest in DC’s roster of not-quite-there tentpole releases – never fully adds up to the sum of its parts, it’s not for want of trying. Truth be told, it tries to hard. Ayers, his cast and his production designers go for a snarling punk aesthetic … and emerge with J-pop kitsch. The narrative wants to have the desperate urgency of some unholy hybrid of ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Escape from New York’, but ladles on the references to those two classics so heavy-handily that it plods in their footsteps rather than sassily homaging them. And everyone involved wants the audience to take the eponymous mob of villains to their hearts so badly that said mob come across as loveable rather than the edgy anti-heroes of the source material.

“We’re the bad guys,” one of other of them declaims at regular intervals, and believe me the reminders are necessary. During the city-wide battle that occupies the second half of the movie, the most villainous thing that happens is when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) smashes a shop window and steals a handbag. As for the rest of them, Deadshot (Will Smith) sells out to the Establishment so his daughter can get an ivy league education; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a bank robber whom the script doesn’t give much of a shit about; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who has a Prometheus-like way with fire but spends most of the running time wanting to be a pacifist; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s not so much a villain as a genetic cock-up to be kept out of the way of the general citizenship; and one other dude who was in it for about two and a half minutes before getting written out just to prove that the Establishment are bigger bastards than the crims. Subversive, much?

The Establishment are represented by Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), a corrupt guard at the maximum security prison in which our soon-to-be-squad are incarcerated; Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), their handler; and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Flag’s boss and a hardass politico with a covert agenda. Waller is actually the most edgy, dangerous and morality-free character in the ensemble, and you quickly get the impression that she really doesn’t need the Suicide Squad. Just send her out into the streets of Midway City in her business suit, armed with nothing more than some withering put-downs, and most iterations of ancient and unstoppable evil would probably run home crying for their mom.

But still, the script calls for the Squad to mix it up with the aforementioned ancient and unstoppable evil. So please give a big hand, ladies and gentlemen – if only in sympathy for the thanklessness of her role – for The Enchantress, a witch who has possessed the body of archaeologist Dr June Moone (Cara Delevingne). As the film opens, Moone is in a relationship with Flag while Waller keeps the witch’s heart in a briefcase as leverage to keep both Flag and The Enchantress in check. The Enchantress quickly discovers a workaround and engineers a doomsday machine thingie that opens a hole in the sky. That’s about as much exposition as the script offers, by the way. Seriously: the similar extraterrestrial threat to humankind that provides the biggest plot device in ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’ benefits from a more rigorous scientific rationale. Throughout all of this, Delevingne, a likeable actress with, I think, the ability to slough off her supermodel image, is required to do little more than sway hypnotically while a mess of CGI splurges across the screen behind her. The film wastes her almost as egregiously as it does swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Anyway, our cuddly bunch of cutesy misfits … sorry, I mean the Suicide Squad … go into action to stop The Enchantress, close the hole in the sky and exchange banter. A word on the latter. When ‘Deadpool’ proved box office Viagra, the producers of ‘Suicide Squad’ decided their movie also needed to be irreverent and signed off on $10 million’s worth of reshoots to bump up the humour quotient. I laughed about four times during the just-over-two-hours. That’s two and a half mill per giggle. Bit steep, if you ask me.

Credit where it’s due, once Ayer and co. limp past the halfway mark, things begin to cohere and the Squad start behaving in a way that’s not forced. Also, Ayer stops relying on look-at-me directorial flashes and lets his cast do their thing. The action is decent, but much of it is staged as an ongoing battle with The Enchantress’s legion of once-humans, whom she transforms into beings that look like gooseberries gone evil. It’s an aesthetic misstep that damn near undermines the film. You want the Suicide Squad battling against seemingly insurmountable odds – i.e. for the threat to imply the non-squad part of the title – not look like they’re starring in a Ribena commercial.

But even the ’beena-berry business is better than the awfully structure first half, where vignettes introduce us to Deadshot and Harley Quinn in jail, then Waller introduces them all over again – along with the rest of the Squad – to the homeland security types who green-light the project, then Flag is introduced to the Squad, then the Squad are introduced to each other. It’s an inordinate amount of set-up for characters who are never fleshed out beyond a visual quirk and a music cue. Ayer’s reliance on music cues is wearying and sometimes pointless. Waller is introduced to the strains of the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, the lyric “I’m a man of wealth and taste” barely uttered before a black SUV discharges Viola Davis’s decidedly non-masculine form.

If Davis gives the best performance, Smith comes a close second – I’ve not seen him enjoying himself in a role this much in ages. Robbie has a lot of fun with Harley Quinn, but fares less well in the flashbacks as Dr Harleen Quinzel; her dark romance with The Joker (Jared Leto) – the only other character who genuinely seems dangerous – is too sketchily established and consequently never convinces, something not helped by the lack of chemistry between her and Leto. That said, Leto is otherwise effective. With two iconic and very different takes on The Joker already etched into the popular consciousness courtesy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, kudos to Leto for a full-steam-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes piece of characterisation. He doesn’t quite get enough screen time to make the character his own, but I’m eager to see what he does next time round.