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Intelligent life - in the cinema!
A sci-fi movie that assumes there is intelligent life in the cinema is something of a rarity. ARRIVAL reworks themes from other movies - notably 2001 and CONTACT - but it reworks them with a fresh perspective that makes this movie seem intriguing and original.
Shell-shaped spacecraft arrive at various locations around the globe. The US one hovers over a field in Montana which quickly becomes a military zone like Area 51. Linguistics expert Amy Adams is summoned to try to communicate with the octopus-shaped aliens who squirt their words onto a clear wall that separates them from the scientists and their military escorts whom they allow inside the craft.
The big question, of course, which occupies the entire movie, is: Have they come in peace? With (fond!) memories of MARS ATTACKS and WAR OF THE WORLDS, I was constantly anticipating mayhem. In the Pentagon (clearly not presided over by a Bush or a Trump) the doves, for once, are not silenced, but around the world the hawks squawk the loudest, inevitably.
The CGI here manages to be stunning without being over-the-top. Adams gives a nicely judged performance which justifiably dominates the movie. The story lacks pace but it delivers on thought-provoking content. Probably, as in 2001 and CONTACT, most of the audience will come out wondering, What the hell was that all about? Good: get 'em thinking. Treat us as intelligent beings - like the tentacle people!
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Style plus substance
Seven years after A SINGLE MAN Tom Ford has directed another offbeat movie, adapted by him from a fairly off-the-wall novel. Amy Adams plays NYC art gallery owner Susan whose ex-husband Edward has just published a novel that she reads as an acid attack on her. The word REVENGE is spelled out in one of Susan's paintings, so we know where she's coming from. Edward's novel, visualised for the audience, features the violent outcome of a highway breakdown for Tony and his wife and daughter. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and Tony, although in the desert scenes his wife is played by Isla Fisher, not Ms Adams.
The movie switches from the Susan scenes to the desert drama without confusion for the viewer. The violence is very graphic and reminded me of the Toby Jones version of Capote's In Cold Blood, which I watched again recently. As in A SINGLE MAN, fashionista Tom Ford directs for Style as much as Substance: the camera hovers on the details of decor both in Manhattan and in the desert; it also lingers on the faces and bodies of the actors. Gyllenhaal has rarely acted (or looked) better. Rather like Julianne Moore in the earlier movie, Amy Adams is unsympathetically presented: it's Jake who's as much the victim as his alter ego's family. This is a dark and disturbing movie, intelligently scripted and powerfully directed.
Dante but not dandy
This is the weakest of Dan Brown's four books featuring 'symbologist' Robert Langdon and it certainly makes for the most mediocre of the (three, so far) movies. THE DA VINCI CODE was clever but a bit too earnest in its tone. ANGELS AND DEMONS was over-the-top but enjoyably daft. INFERNO is just a big muddle, unintelligible and occasionally inaudible to boot. Like most of the recent James Bond movies and the latest Jason Bourne adventure, it recycles plot elements and has a distinctly underweight villain.
Professor Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital with amnesia and a very attentive doctor (Felicity Jones) who rescues him from an attempted assassination. As the pair go on the run through some of the city's landmarks, Langdon's memory starts to come back and we learn that he is meant to be thwarting a plan to unleash a plague that will reduce the world's population by fifty per cent. As well as the villain's hit men, the World Health Organisation is in pursuit him, led by an old flame of his (Sidse Knudsen, whom many of us remember as the Danish Prime Minister on TV). We are meant to be confused as to excuse the pun WHO is the bad guy here. The big 'reveal' halfway through is the point where the whole story becomes ludicrous. Cranking up the pace for the climax beneath the streets of Istanbul does not rescue the movie from chaos.
Tom Hanks looks as if he'd rather be in any movie but this one; his is not the only performance with an air of embarrassment. The plague scenario has already driven too many movies; it was perhaps best used in 007's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. The Da Vinci references in Langdon's first screen outing just about made sense; the Dante visions of Hell-on-Earth that pepper INFERNO seem contrived and clunky. The usually dependable director (and Oscar- winner) Ron Howard has messed up here, big-time. Nice to be taken on a tour of Florence, though!
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
More a retread than a remake
Like this summer's TARTZAN, here's another remake that is apt to make some viewers (me, for instance) ask: Why? There's plenty that's good about it, especially the lighting and cinematography, but the screenplay springs no surprises and neither do the performances.
The story is the same old same old. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and four other gunslingers help the folk of a mining community in California confront the robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants to drive them out of town. I seem to have missed a vital point: why wouldn't he want the town to supply and support the miners? Anyway, Denzel and Co are recruited to turn the townspeople into an army that can outwit and outgun the evil Bartholomew Bogue (I wanted his name to be pronounced 'bogie' or 'boogey'!).
None of the gunmen is given much in the way of a back story: they all appear to be mercenaries, so the movie lacks a moral tone beyond the basic Good (town) versus Evil (mine-owner). The impending battle drives the narrative, which inevitably drags until we get to the shoot-out. This is extremely well done, relying on stunts and acrobatics rather than on CGI, always welcome from my viewpoint. Sarsgaard's Bogue is a lacklustre villain, like Christoph Waltz's recent take on Blofeld, and Denzel W, usually a very charismatic presence, doesn't invest too much in his role. 'Oomph' is conspicuously absent.
Not, then, a ground-breaking new Western like UNFORGIVEN. More a retread than a remake.
Bridget Jones's Baby (2016)
Bridget goes pear-shaped
This is only Bridget's third appearance on the big screen but already she and her chums - all back except Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) - have the pleasing familiarity of the CARRY ON cast from an earlier era. The story begins, shockingly, at Daniel's funeral where Bridget has an embarrassing encounter with her Lost Great Love, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), now married to somebody else. To get over her grief Bridget goes to the Glastonbury music fest where she falls in the mud and is rescued by dating-site billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), the New Stud On The Block. Unfortunately only days after bestowing her favours on Jack, Bridget also bestows them on old flame Mark. So when she finds out she's pregnant, she doesn't know who the father is; the plot, heavily recycled, requires her to be scared of allowing the fetus to be DNA-tested.
The rest of the movie goes down familiar rom-com territory as the two men compete to be The Man and Bridget's career in a TV newsroom goes, like her, pear-shaped. It's all extremely predictable but again, as with the CARRY-ONs, familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt and the sheer pace of this frantic comedy helps make it seem fresher and more fragrant than it actually is; there are several gags which seem not so much borrowed as stolen. The ending manages to deliver a small surprise which allows us to look forward to BRIDGET IV.
Renee Zellweger slips effortlessly back into the role of Bridget, perilously poised between very annoying and rather endearing. Emma Thompson and Patrick Dempsey are welcome additions to the cast. There's a great soundtrack and a pleasing cameo from Ed Sheeran. This has better performances and a better script than the big screen version of ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS - and is a lot more fun.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Dead man talking
My first movie in a month and I could hardly have picked anything more weird! Paul Dano plays Hank, marooned on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe. His Man Friday is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a washed-up corpse whose spectacular flatulence propels Hank into an amazing odyssey. Despite being dead Manny has other gifts for starters, he can talk - and he's a great listener. An unlikely friendship bonds the two of them together as they trek and scavenge their way back to civilisation. Hank has a major crush on a girl he's seen on his daily commute and she has a role to play in their bizarre adventure.
As 'bromances' go, this is at the far extreme of bizarre. Monty Python meets American Pie, with too many fart and 'stiffie' gags. Paul Dano's Hank is the apotheosis of nerdiness (I thought him horribly miscast in the recent TV version of War and Peace), but he manages to become endearing to the viewer as well as to Manny. Daniel Radcliffe has charm and a fair degree of charisma, even when playing a flatulent corpse; it's safe to say he has laid Harry Potter to rest.
Writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have concocted a movie so far out that it makes the Coen brothers look mainstream. It will not be to everyone's taste, but a film starring a farting corpse is oddly beguiling.
Great chariot race, but the rest ....
Charlton Heston, in 1959, brought stature and gravitas to the role of Judah Ben-Hur, Jewish prince turned galley-slave turned charioteer. Jack Huston, in 2016, is handsome and hunky and makes a rather bland prince, but he acquires a bit of stature in the galley scenes and definitely carries the second half of the movie. Toby Kebbell totally lacks the charisma that Stephen Boyd brought to the role of Messala, the Roman centurion who turns against his adopted Jewish brother; Kebbell rarely looks much more than an extra from television's Roman sex-romp SPARTACUS. Morgan Freeman, of course, oozes gravitas as the narrator and race-horse owner, but for some reason his braided hair kept reminding me of Whoopi Goldberg - so much for gravitas!
This movie often seems little more than a mini-series translated to the big screen. It only comes into its own in the galley battle scenes and the chariot race finale, both of which blend CGI and stunt action to stunning effect. We know the plot a bit too well: a huge chunk of it was recycled in Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR, and now it's recycled again. The last days of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro) are more prominent than they were in 1959, when Christ was only seen in reaction scenes (which was oddly more powerful than here), and there's a change of ending which robs the climax of drama rather than adding to it.
Gore Vidal liked to claim that he scripted a gay sub-text to the Judah/Messala relationship, but, the 'bromance' was more BUTCH & SUNDANCE than BROKEBACK. If anything, there's more intensity in the early scenes of this version - nothing that could really be read as gay. 1959 gave us a great movie; 2016's isn't great and if it isn't actually bad, it's somewhere between okay and nearly good.
Jason Bourne (2016)
There's some very clever packaging at work here. It felt like the most exciting two hours I've spent in the cinema in a long time, and yet what it mostly does is to recycle the plot of the first three movies. Having recovered his memory, Jason is now trying to clear his dead father's name but the devious new head of the Agency (they're always devious in this series) has to stop him. There's a subplot involving an ultra-nerd social media chief who maybe does or maybe doesn't want to let the CIA use his global network for surveillance.
Matt Damon isn't given much dialogue: he's an all-action man. The new CIA chief is played by Tommy Lee Jones, looking as if his head belongs on Mount Rushmore. He has a cool new assistant (Alicia Vikander as a younger version of the Joan Allen character from BOURNE 2 and 3). Vincent Cassel plays a freelance assassin (he often does) known only as 'the Asset'. Julia Stiles reprises her role as renegade agent Nicky Parsons; there's an early chase scene involving her and Jason that is more visceral (and more believable) than the OTT climax on the Vegas Strip.
The various plot-threads are somewhat clumsily tied together, but the main focus of a Bourne movie are the chases and shoot-outs. As he has before, Paul Greengrass serves up non-stop action with a lot more style than cartoon-based movies - although Jason Bourne, let's face it, is another superhero just as James Bond is. Yes, we've seen most of this before, but the pace and the packaging - there are five killings in the first sixty seconds! - make this feel (almost) fresh.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
This latest 122-minute episode of the Prequel series is co-scripted by Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty the dour but endearing engineer who sooner or later we know will manage to kick-start the Warp drive of another damaged starship.
Responding to a distress call on the far side of the universe, the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of alien ships and crash-lands on a craggy planet with an Earthlike atmosphere. The scattered crew reunite and help the good alien (female) confront the bad alien (Idris Elba in Borg-like makeup) who is after the key to a new superweapon that, if unleashed, can destroy the Federation.
OK, this is a plot we have seen before several times and there are chase and fight scenes that date back to cowboy or kung-fu movies as much as to early sci-fi. The CGI is outstanding and the scenes on the space mega-city Yorktown are seriously out-of-this- world. The cast, settling into the roles most of us still associate with Leonard Nimoy and Co, have become likable in their own right - especially Zachary Quinto as Spock the Younger. Chris Pine's Captain Kirk is slightly wooden, which may be a deliberate homage to dear old William Shatner. Pegg's script includes some welcome humour and the occasional nod towards Intergalactic Philosophy that has always been a clumsy but welcome feature of the series.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Bring back the men in monkey-suits
The latest reboot of this venerable franchise uses CGI instead of the wildlife footage and extras in gorilla-suits we put up with in the era of Weissmuller and Mahoney and co. Alexander Skarsgard, like Christopher Lambert in 1984's elegant (but plodding) GREYSTOKE, is a leaner meaner Tarzan than some of the steroidal hunks you see in the gym who might like a crack at the role. The story our handsome hero returns to the jungle he grew up in to liberate the natives from enslavement by a vicious mine-owner has echoes of some of the older plots in the series (much like the Bond movies), with some atmospheric scenes of Tarzan in his post-African role as Lord of a Manor (his bride is now Lady Jane, which brings unintended echoes of Lady Chatterley!). THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is faithful to the spirit if not to the letter of the Edgar Rice Burroughs source material.
The 'foundation' story, his childhood talking to the animals, is told here in a series of crisp flashbacks. This works very well, intercut with the developing rescue drama. The cinematography does full justice to the glories of the African landscape.The Victorian period flavour is well maintained (as it was in 1984), and the story is nearly as fast and furious as an Indiana Jones escapade. Skarsgard brings glamour and charisma to the title role. Margot Robbie's Jane has a luminous beauty that reminded me of the early Sophia Loren. Samuel L. Jackson makes the best he can of a thankless role as the inept but valiant sidekick and Christoph Waltz recycles his recent resurrection of Blofeld with little visible effort.
There's not much originality here but it makes for colourful and thrilling entertainment. Hobbits and Harry Potter should have accustomed us to digital creatures by now, but I did find the CGI animals lacked credibility and made me almost nostalgic for extras in monkey-suits.