The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys seems at least as much defined by what it isn’t as what it is. It isn’t a Will Ferrell, gross-out, over the top comedy. It isn’t a gag-fest. It isn’t a by the books buddy comedy. It isn’t a quirky, Wes Anderson, uncomedy either. I admire it for not being all those things. But I’m less sure it knows what it is. The take of two private eyes bumbling through a convoluted plot involving a missing woman in LA has so much cinematic baggage, from The Big Sleep, to Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang via Mulholland Drive and LA Confidential (which also featured both Basinger and Crowe lest we miss the reference) that it is placing itself at an immediate disadvantage.

The jokes don’t come thick and fast, but there are some laugh out loud moments. I’ve seen some people complain about the storyline – have these people ever seen the Big Sleep, Maltese Falcon or Chinatown? A twisting, barely comprehensible, and largely meaningless plot is the whole point of a noir movie. It is less a narrative arc than a narrative slug trail. The function of that plot is to allow other elements to be showcased – the seedy side of Hollywood say, or Humphrey Bogart being endlessly cool. The interaction between Gosling and Crowe is presumably the intended primary function here, and while neither are awful, they are also not quite sufficient enough to justify the long running time.

In the end, I sorta liked it for not being other things, in the same way you sorta support one team who are playing against another you don’t like. But when that team doesn’t win, you’re not invested in it.

In the Deep

After The Shallows, this is the second, non-Sharknado type shark movie this year. It centres on two sisters, Lisa and Kate, holidaying in Mexico who decide to do the tourist thing of going down in a shark cage from Matthew Modine’s slightly shabby boat. It never ends well for Americans holidaying in Mexico in films, and when we find out that one sister is the quiet, homely type, jealous of her more adventurous sibling, we know where it will end.

If The Shallows could be seen as The Revenge of Chrissie Watkins, then this is Hooper in the Shark Cage – the Extended Cut. “You go inside the cage? Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water” is pretty much the plot summary. But In The Deep is also a decent survival film and as well as having a realistic shark, it successfully adds the disorientation of being in dark water, and the tension of clock-watching a diminishing air supply into the mix. There are moments of real anxiety and high suspense as the two sisters attempt to escape the watery confine. It’s tightly scripted, well acted and keeps the shark action to a realistic minimum.

I have a soft spot for Jaws 2, but this probably ranks as my 3rd favourite shark movie, a worthy entry on to niche internet lists.

Miles Ahead

The consensus on Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davies seems to be Cheadle great, film a bit of a mess. It’s hard not to argue with that assessment. Biopics tend to go for the cradle to grave sweep, or the detailed, representative slice or have a particular theory they want to expound. While Cheadle deliberately (and wisely I think) wanted to avoid the first of these approaches, Miles Ahead doesn’t really replace it with anything else. It could have taken a microcosm approach, (eg using Ashley Kahn’s book on the making of Kind of Blue), but instead interweaves three or four story lines. One of these involves Ewan MacGregor’s Rolling Stone journalist, so the film could have opted for the interview as narrative tool, like End of the Tour. It doesn’t have a particular cinematic interpretation in relation to the music either, as Love and Mercy attempted. There doesn’t seem to be a strong sense of how it wants to approach the subject or the point it wants to make.

But the film is imbued with respect, love and admiration, and with a tighter script Cheadle will be a sympathetic and engaging director. I’m not sure there is a good, coherent Miles Davies biopic waiting to be made. Any such film will always fall short of the music, and the man himself. You’re inevitably left wondering, why don’t I just stick on Sketches of Spain?

The Shallows

Ok, let’s just get it out in the open – Jaws, Jaws, Jaws, Jaws. Spielberg’s classic (and as you’ll ascertain from the title of this blog, my all time favourite movie) both invented, and simultaneously killed a genre. Everyone wanted to make a shark movie after Jaws, but there was no point in making a shark movie after Jaws.

The Shallows centres on Nancy Adams undertaking a pilgrimage to a secluded beach where her now deceased mother went when she was first pregnant. During surfing she stumbles into the feeding ground of a great white, feasting on a dead killer whale. Stranded on a piece of rock until the tide comes in, the film is a sort of 127 Hours on a Lump of Coral. All of the ingredients of the survival movie are in place – seclusion, a misunderstanding with someone who could be a contact, some crucial decisions early on that have consequences later one, etc. A family favourite in our household was the US TV series I Shouldn’t Be Alive, which featured real life tales of people surviving disastrous situations, often despite their best attempts to get themselves killed. The Shallows is like an extended version of one of these episodes.

One of the inherent problems of stranded type movies is that the central character is forced to vocalise inner thoughts, otherwise we’re just staring at someone. A foil can help in this, Wilson in Cast Away, and Steven Seagull in The Shallows. It does lead to unrealistic, awkward monologues “hmm, a camera”.

The climax makes a direct nod to Jaws, with Adams swimming to a life buoy for safety. This is where the film really stretches reality, and could be labelled “The Revenge of Chrissie Watkins”. But at least it’s an attempt to make a decent shark film that isn’t in the Sharknado, or Deep Blue Water vein of ridiculousness, and it has some genuine moments of tension. And maybe the whole thing is an existential metaphor – I mean which of us hasn’t felt like we’re clinging to a rotting whale’s carcass, just yards from safety while dangers swirl around.

Green Room

I watched a couple of Eli Roth films the other day (Green Inferno and Aftershock). They were unsatisfying and I found myself comparing them unfavourably to Jeremy Saulnier’s tight, believable thriller. Green Room follows a hardcore punk band who after scratching a tour get offered a gig at a neo-nazi club in the middle of a forest. They stumble across a crime scene in the eponymous Green Room, and from there both sides are locked into an escalating series of confrontations.

Where this works over Roth’s films is that the latter are situated firmly in the horror genre, while Green Room is really a thriller. A second reason is that although Roth has grown more courageous in his set up – we get an hour or so of getting to know the characters – these are people we don’t want to spend time with. They are usually rich, spoilt white kids who are being brave travelling outside of America (which they will really come to regret). Green Room has a decent level of introduction, but crucially the characters are grounded and interesting. You believe this is a punk group, their terms of reference are knowing and their music is not the embarrassing pastiche of punk that would be created by a 45 year old Hollywood scriptwriter.

The film has it flaws, there are only so many times they can escape from the green room and return to it. And one of the likeable aspects of the film is its refusal to escalate to high levels of gore, conspiracy or horror. This is how this situation might well develop, and it has the confidence not to layer levels of excess upon it. But this is also one of its weaknesses, once the audience knows the set up, we are waiting then for it to follow its path, and there is little deviation from this.

But there’s a lot to like in this film, and a good way to appreciate its qualities is to imagine how it would have turned out under Roth’s hand.

Batman vs Superman

I think I’ve established my disdain for comic book movies on here. My charge book is: fans take them too seriously; as soon as you take them seriously then you have to take them seriously – and then it’s silly men dressing up in outfits being white vigilantes; they represent the worst examples of flat, boring, CGI battles that are devoid of any tension, meaning or peril; they dominate cinema; I am not 12 years old.

With this baggage I came to Batman vs Superman aware that the comic book fans had hated it, so therefore I was willing to be contrarian and heap praise on it. And for the first half hour I was preparing a review along those lines – the reason the usual comic book audience didn’t like it was because it placed Superman in a real, modern, context. We see him in a middle east, murky dark ops scenario. Is Superman part of American imperialism this asks? But, as every overblown minute dragged on, my triumphant, contrarian review morphed into yet another one despairing at the pompous, self-indulgent, poorly scripted mess of a film it is.

One of the most embarrassing aspects of Batman vs Superman is the cringing, naked spectacle of someone going beyond the intellectual capacity, without anyone telling them they’re regurgitating cliches. The whole religious, turgid, digging clay rhetoric of Snyder is like an over indulged 6th former telling you earnestly “yeah, but I think religion is the cause of all wars”. You can’t help but roll your eyes, and ruffle their hair.

There are some good points to the film – the aforementioned realistic situating of Superman (this works less well with Batman), an effective Lois Lane portrayal, Ben Affleck has some weight as an ageing Batman and there is an attempt at a monochromatic style with echoes of Blade Runner. But these are outweighed very heavily by the negatives: a completely contrived central conflict (it’s in the title so it must be good). When Batman says “if there’s 1% chance he’s our enemy we have to assume he is” seems entirely unconvincing; A Godawful Lex Luther portrayal from Eisenberg, all twitchy pyschopath by numbers; it’s just fucking boring, oh for an editor, a narrative arc you care about.

I turned it off after Lex Luther screams (while twitching psychopathically) “bring me the head of the bat!” because Pointless was starting on TV. Pointless just about sums it up.

Brothers Grimsby

Alright, I kinda knew I wouldn’t like this, but gave it a try because a friend said it was quite funny. It isn’t. Really, not funny at all. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s take on England football supporting ‘chav’ is just nasty. There might have been a germ of a good idea in here, a sort of Shameless meets Kingsman, but at every step it makes the wrong choice. The depiction of the working class is just sneering, the offensive humour just offensive, the jokes lacking in any irony. Even 15 year old boys will find this tiring.

There is a fine line between getting things right and missing completely – ask the sibling of a famous sports star who toils away in the lower leagues while their star sibling is awash with great wealth. A bit of physique difference, a subtle alteration in psychology, a smidgeon of talent – not much here and there, but it makes all the difference. When you’re making this kind of deliberately offensive comedy all those decisions have to be right for it to work, and here none of them do. By the time it gets to a testicle sucking scene (acting out the old Lone Ranger -Tonto joke) it is so tired, and trying so hard to shock that it becomes truly embarrassing to watch.

Maybe there is a case for making a meta-point about culture and racism here – we didn’t mind when it was the people of Kazakhstan being offended with Borat. There may be some truth in that. But it has to be funny first before you can make any claims about irony or justifications about cultural comment. And this isn’t. Not at all.

The Ones Below

Disliking superhero movies as I do, there is a dearth of anything decent up at the cinema, so I’m reviewing this recent release. It’s a British thriller focusing on married couple Kate and Justin, who are expecting their first child. They live in a first floor flat, and a couple, Jon and Theresa, move in below, who are also expecting. We know we’re in for a mix of middle-class tension and psychological horror when we see the overly pristine garden the downstairs, and this is borne out when they host a dinner party. Whereas Kate and Justin put off having a baby and then got pregnant without trying, for Jon and Theresa it has been a long held purpose, only now realised after 7 years.

There are echoes of Rosemary’s Baby and French gore flick Inside in The Ones Below, but it’s a more more subdued, tense affair. Clemence Poesy is particularly engaging as Kate, slowly unravelling with the manipulation of the coldly sinister Theresa, and David Morrissey is convincing in his now familiar creepy, controlling bank exec type. It’s well scripted, every item and scene has purpose, as is revealed in the final denouement. The principle of Checkhov’s gun states that everything should have some contribution to the narrative and writer/director David Farr seems to have really taken this as a mantra.

It dips around two thirds through, we know what the likely outcome will be, and there is a sense that some tropes have to be worked through before we can get there. And it doesn’t quite overcome it’s ‘funded by the BBC’ feel, ironically Farr wrote the Night Manager for TV which had a more cinematic sense than this. But it’s a decent psychological thriller, and both Farr and Poesy are probably destined for bigger things.

Son of Saul

Films about the holocaust face a dilemma – the demands of the subject matter are not necessarily compatible with the semantics of cinema. The subject requires an absolute desire to portray truth, for us to bear witness. But the structure of a two hour movie calls for a narrative arc, dramatic tension, some fudging of the truth for the sake of the story. In addressing this dilemma film-makers are forced to be inventive in their approach. This can involve telling a story around the death camps but not located in them (Schindler’s List), adding a fictional character to be our representative (The Boy is Striped Pyjamas), even attempting (largely unsuccessfully) dark comedy (Life is Beautiful), or the courtroom approach (lots of them).

A cinematic problem of portraying the heart of darkness, life in Auschwitz itself, is that the camp was designed to strip any light and shade from the daily lives of the inmates. The unrelenting grimness of lie there was part of the industrial process designed to strip people of their humanity. Hope, romance, action, drama – all the staples of a movie plot were deliberately removed from the inmate’s experience because these are emotions that make us human, and the aim is to explicitly remove any such hooks. Making a film from this perspective gets to the heart of the dilemma – how to be truthful and yet also make a film that engages. László Nemes’s film doesn’t try to shy away from this central tension. The technique faces it full on by taking the viewer directly into the camp. The camera is rarely two foot from Géza Röhrig’s Saul, often following behind his shoulder. This gives it an immersive game, found footage quality, we are placed directly in the action.

Saul is one of the Sonderkommando, the inmates who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria. Kept apart from the other inmates, the Sonderkommando themselves were executed after a few months and replaced. Saul operates quietly, efficiently, with the bowed head, don’t draw attention to yourself stance that Primo Levi describes in If This Is A Man. The storyline as it is involves a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber, and then dies. Saul believes him to be his son, and wants to give him a proper burial, and not be subject to autopsy. This plot device allows us to follow Saul through different parts of the camp, as he seeks a rabbi and a means of burial.

The plot makes some overtures about the need to find some act of morality in an immoral place. But it is not really the focus of the movie. Intriguingly the focus is the out of focus action. While the camera is locked on the quiet pathos in Saul’s face, the detail is in the bokeh behind him. Blurred figures haul bodies, shoot inmates, strip possessions. It seems to say that even a film that wants to face the subject directly is forced to gaze indirectly.