Archive for the ‘Action’ Category

deepwater_horizon_film

Director: Peter Berg

Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Mike Williams), Kurt Russell (Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Farrell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), John Malkovich (Vidrine), David Maldonado (Kuchta), Kate Hudson (Felicia), Dylan O’Brien (Caleb Holloway)

“Hope ain’t a tactic”: Director Peter Berg’s angry depiction of the well from hell sticks the knife into BP

Towards the end of Deepwater Horizon, based on the disastrous 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of survivors drop to their knees and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Upon the line “Deliver us from evil” the camera cuts to the rig, completely engulfed in flames, reminding us of a line spoken earlier: “This is the well from hell”. Indeed, the actual incident killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others and devasted marine life (210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean).

I headed to the cinema with a certain degree of trepidation, concerned that this might in some way be an exploitative film that maximised thrills at the expense of reality. I never expect total accuracy from a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events – the demands of story-telling rarely allow that – but it is important that the broad picture is roughly accurate and, in the case of a tragedy like this one, is respectful to those who risked or lost their lives.

In any event, Deepwater Horizon struck me as deeply respectful to the plight of the riggers, though BP executives will no doubt feel they have been painted as pantomime villains (especially with Malkovich channelling his familiar evil side as BP representative, Vidrine). There isn’t much time for in-depth characterisation, but three people in particular are foregrounded to elicit our sympathies. The first of these is Michael Williams (Wahlberg), who we see in the opening scenes spending his last breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). The latter gives us a potted account of how oil is created, in the form of an essay written for school, and also demonstrates how drilling works, using a can of coke.

The second key figure is “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a rugged no-nonsense figure of authority who has the last word on whether or not drilling can proceed. The third is Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), the only woman that we see on the rig and whose sensible judgment when disaster strikes is overruled by a bullying male colleague.

The first hint of danger comes when the helicopter transporting workers to the rig experiences a birdstrike. Upon arrival at the free-floating Deepwater Horizon platform, Williams and Harrell are concerned to discover that the previous team have not conducted safety checks on the cement casing around the production equipment. BP’s representatives, Vidrine and Kuchta (Maldonado), blithely assert their confidence in the integrity of the cementing, on the basis of no evidence at all, and are obviously motivated by the fact that a planned experimental drilling operation is behind time and over budget. Harrell insists on a safety test, but when the results are somewhat ambiguous he allows himself to be pressurised into permitting drilling. This leads to a blowout in which methane escapes from the well and up the drillshaft, where it ignites on the platform.

The subsequent depictions of fire, explosions and desperate attempts to control the situation, whilst assisting the injured, are absolutely compelling. For those of us who have ever wondered what an oil rig disaster must be like, this imagining of such an event is a terrifying eye-opener. I was so swept up in events that it was only later that I realised that a considerable amount of CGI must have been involved. It doesn’t show.

If ever there was a picture of human vulnerability, it is surely Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell waking from unconsciousness, naked on the floor of what used to be a shower, half-blind, and his body peppered with glass. After being rescued by Williams, he himself resumes the direction of operations.

It is quite something that a Hollywood movie should so clearly stick the knife into a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that is exactly what Deepwater Horizon does to BP. And it does so without resorting to cliché. Director Peter Berg has chosen to tell this story in a straightforward unfussy way. It just happens to be one hell of a story.

Advertisements

High_Rise_2014_Film_Poster

Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenplay: Amy Jump

Country: UK

Runtime: 112 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (Dr Robert Laing), Jeremy Irons (Anthony Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte Melville), Luke Evans (Richard Wilder), Keeley Hawes (Ann Royal), Reece Shearsmith (Nathan Steele)

A mordantly witty adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about a concrete apocalypse

Watching the opening scenes of High Rise, I found myself musing how film adaptations of a book one has previously read can change forever the way you envision the book. I can’t now read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun without imagining Christian Bale and John Malkovich as the main characters. I also recall one contemporary reviewer expressing disappointment that the film’s depiction of drained swimming pools – one of the central motifs in many Ballard stories – just seemed a bit underwhelming when viewed on the big screen.

It will probably now be impossible to read High Rise without imagining Tom Hiddleston as physiologist Dr Robert Laing and Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal. But I am delighted to report that Ben Wheatley’s film really brings to life the imagery and spirit of Ballard’s novel. More than anything, he brings to the fore the mordant wit of the book (something I recently discovered upon re-reading but missed entirely when I read it as a younger man).

The story begins with Laing cooking a dog on the balcony of his apartment, part of a luxury tower block complex that has somehow gone to wrack and ruin. Then we flash back to the early days of the building three months before in order to learn just how the concrete apocalypse has come about. The inhabitants are all middle class professionals, but even within this privileged group social divisions arise and are exacerbated as the building itself becomes increasingly dysfunctional. People don’t care about those two or more floors above or below them and, in particular, those on higher levels have greater disdain for those further below them.

In a dreamlike fashion (reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier A Field in England) anti-social behaviour escalates, from people blocking the rubbish chutes with used nappies, to parties that get out of hand, through to outright violence. As food stocks run out living takes on the characteristics of an urban hunter-gather existence, with the stronger men vying to monopolise the female inhabitants. Where Ballard presciently satirised the behaviour of a group of proto-Thatcherites, Wheatley is more explicit about the political nature of the material. Following an uproarious party on the middle levels, Royal’s acolytes plan a grander party to show the others how it ought to be done. As one of them explains, competition is at the heart of a modern economy. They then decide that the first step in their party planning must be to commandeer all the resources, surely as pointed a commentary on the nature of capitalism as it’s possible to make? High Rise actually closes with an excerpt of a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

Tom Hiddleston is totally convincing as the canny survivor “hiding in plain sight” who, as with so many of Ballard’s protagonists, embraces the catastrophe around him. And Jeremy Irons is an inspired piece of casting as the patrician architect of the luxury apartment complex, who watches with fascinated amusement at the creation of a new kind of society within his decaying empire. From the men’s terrible moustaches to the cars in the parking lot, Ben Wheatley does a great job of depicting the mid-seventies whilst nonetheless making it seem like the dystopian near-future that Ballard first envisioned. And if it won’t be possible to read his novel in the same way again, the same will be true of Abba’s song S.O.S. which is featured at several points in the soundtrack.

Rating: 5/5

Kajaki: Directed by Paul Katis; Written by Tom Williams; Country – UK; Runtime – 108 mins.

Cast: Mark Stanley (‘Tug’ Hartley), Malachi Kirby (Snoop), David Elliiot (Mark Wright), Paul Luebke (Jay Davis), Ali Cook (‘Spud’ McMellon), Bryan Parry (Jonesy), Grant Kilburn (Alex Craig), Andy Gibbins (Smudge), Scott Kyle (Stu Pearson), Jon-Paul Bell (Luke Mauro), Benjamin O’Mahony (Stu Hale), Connor Mills (voice), John Doughty (Dave Prosser), Liam Ainsworth (Ken Barlow), Robert Mitchell (Faz).

American Sniper: Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Jason Hall, from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice; Country – USA; Runtime – 132 mins.

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Cole Konis (young Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Max Charles (Colton Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Sam Jaeger (Captain Martens), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict (‘D’ / Dandridge).

*** SPOILER ALERT: Each film reviewed here is based on real events, and these are described in my review. ***

War – what is it good for?

British armed forces have been engaged in continuous conflict somewhere on the planet for the past hundred years, and for several decades after World War Two war movies were a regular part of the film industry’s output. Even in the late seventies and early eighties good business was being done by films like The Eagle Has Landed, The Wild Geese, and The Dogs of War. However, ever since the televised images from the Falklands War brought the shocking reality of conflict to a new generation it seems as though British film-makers have lost their enthusiasm for war films. There are of course some exceptions, such as Regeneration (1997) and Enigma (2001), the former set in Word War One and the latter concerned with a mystery among Bletchley Park’s codebreakers in WW2. However, it is hard to think of any British movies that deal with our more recent conflicts. Perhaps film-makers have been cowed by the intense controversy that surrounded the TV Falklands drama Tumbledown (1988). Even representations of earlier conflicts can arouse establishment ire if they are felt to question the authorised version of history, as with The Monocled Mutineer (1986).

By contrast, Hollywood has produced several films that are based upon recent conflicts. The best-known of these are Three Kings (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) – based on the book by British writer-journalist Jon Ronson, Jarhead (2005), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). However, it may be that 2014 represents a turning point in the decline of the British war film. We have had another Bletchley Park drama, The Imitation Game, the thrilling adventure film ’71 set in “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, and – most significantly – Kajaki, a true story concerning the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“3 Para”), during their 2006 deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The film itself is an exercise in realism, focusing on three themes: the bravery of the men in extreme circumstances, their earthy humour (Kajaki is frequently very funny) and the terrible injuries – shown in graphic detail – caused by landmines. The opening scenes are largely concerned with boredom. 3 Para have the task of guarding the Kajaki dam, and do this from their position on top of a nearby hill. In the heat of the Afghan sun all they do is watch. And watch. And when not assigned to the task of watching they read messages from home, talk, joke, drink tea, and exercise.

But these are one of the army’s elite units and the men long to fight. When a small group of Taliban (referred to throughout as “Terry”) are spotted setting up an illegal roadblock down below, a small group is assembled to go and tackle them. However, this is an unauthorised mission: the men are told they need to obtain permission from a senior officer, but never do. Presumably they regard a tiny group of Taliban as no match for their elite skills. But as they reach the bottom of a hillside path disaster strikes. One of the group steps on a mine and is severely injured. From hereon in things go from bad to worse. The men are trapped in a Soviet-era minefield that was not marked on their map. In the attempts to rescue the injured and escape, yet more soldiers are hurt. Communications equipment does not work properly and it is only when a couple of Americans arrive that there is reliable radio. When the RAF are contacted they don’t send a helicopter with a winch, as requested, but instead send a Chinook that tries to land and whose downdraft is so strong that it explodes another mine.

But remarkably, as the situation deteriorates the men continue to joke, even those who are hurt. By contrast, the quips of the fictional James Bond seem quite restrained. At one point, ‘Tug’ Hartley tries to work his way through the minefield towards an injured comrade by tossing his backpack ahead of him and then leaping on top of it. As he does this one of the lads calls from the sidelines “That’s how he mounts his missus!”

The film is a fine tribute to the bravery of these men of 3 Para, and brilliantly conveys the tight-knit bond that spurred them on through this most terrible of situations. Kajaki does not make any overt political statements about the Afghan conflict, but the fact that it was a Soviet minefield that did for 3 Para can’t help but serve as a reminder that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires”.

It should be said that Kajaki will be particularly tough viewing for the squeamish, and the special effects and makeup teams are surely deserving of an award for the realistic depiction of physical wounds.  In this viewer’s opinion, Kajaki stands among the best British war films to have been made, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise that it was put together through crowdfunding. The Ministry of Defence, however, withdrew their support for Kajaki during filming, perhaps because of some of the rather unflattering depictions of British military operations.

RATING: 5/5

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the story of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land), Chris Kyle, based upon his own memoir. Kyle served as a sniper during several deployments in the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and claims to have been the most lethal sniper in US Navy history. With an excellent performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle, Eastwood depicts this big patriotic Texan as a man driven to save good people from evil. As a child he is told by his father that there are three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves want to devour the sheep, who are too weak to fight back. Sheepdogs fight to protect the sheep. Kyle senior tells his boy that he expects him to be a sheepdog.

However, at age 30 Chris Kyle appears to be pissing his life away as a womanizing wannabe cowboy. When a girlfriend dumps him with a few harsh truths in the process, he starts to reevaluate his life. Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Kyle sees the opportunity to become the kind of man his father wanted him to be. He joins the Navy and becomes a sniper with the SEALS. When America leads the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is sent to Fallujah. Working as a rooftop sniper, he is utterly driven. His kill rate is so high that he becomes known as “the legend”, although he finds the label hard to live with. Whilst home on leave, he takes his new wife, Taya, for a checkup at the hospital. The nurse there quickly spots that this is a man who is bottling emotions up inside. She takes a blood pressure reading from Chris, which turns out to be abnormally high. On each home visit Taya struggles to communicate with Chris, who seems to be lost inside his own thoughts and becomes twitchy around ordinary everyday events. When he eventually quits the service he ends up seeing a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital, and with his assistance (although the details are skated over) manages to re-establish his relationship with Taya.

It is possible that hawkish Americans will view American Sniper as a patriotic tale of a soldier who did a great job, at personal cost, in a just war. However, I don’t think that is the real story we are being presented with. This is not the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry movies, but the more considered and questioning Eastwood of Unforgiven. Chris Kyle is essentially presented to us as a metaphor for America itself. In his attempt to be the saviour of good people, Kyle represents the America that sees itself as the world’s policeman. But whilst serving in Iraq Kyle makes promises to local people that he is unable to keep, again like America towards Iraq in general. He tells a frightened Iraqi that he will be able to protect him and his family if he provides important information. Subsequently, the man’s son is tortured in front of him and then the man himself is shot. Those responsible announce to the neighbourhood that this is what happens to people who talk to the Americans.

When one of Kyle’s close comrades is killed by an Iraqi sniper he becomes driven by revenge. During a mission he disobeys an order to “stand down” and kills the sniper from a distance of over a mile. However, in doing so he gives their own position away and his unit find themselves embroiled in a firefight with overwhelming enemy numbers. As the SEALs eventually manage to escape they are literally enveloped in a “desert storm” (the name given to the first invasion of Iraq in January 1991), symbolically representing their inability to impose order on the country. It is after this event, in which Kyle is injured, that he decides to leave the service.

Kyle devotes himself to helping other veterans, whether they are physically disabled or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is in his attempt to assist a soldier with PTSD that the final – metaphorical – irony lies. Whilst on deployment Kyle had stated that one of the reasons for fighting was to prevent terrorism back home. Yet Chris Kyle is shot dead, not by a terrorist, but by a disturbed veteran that he is trying to assist. The message seems to be that America, in trying to police the world, not only deviates from the path of justice to one of revenge, but also ends up damaging herself in the process.

RATING: 4/5

CORRECTIONS: My original review accidentally referred to Clint Eastwood’s earlier film as ‘Forgiven’, when it should of course be ‘Unforgiven’. Also, Chris Kyle joined the Navy after seeing the 1993  bombing of the World Trade Center on television, not the 9/11 attacks (though those are shown too, after which Kyle is sent to Iraq with the SEALs).

Exodus2014Poster

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian

Country: UK / USA / Spain

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), Maria Valverde (Zipparah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun).

Not so much an epic, as an epic failure

If 2014 is anything to go by, filmmakers just can’t do historical epics like they used to. William Wyler (Ben Hur) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) would appear to have nothing to worry about in the competition stakes. I thought Noah was pretty bad (reviewed here on 5th April), but in retrospect it did at least have a fairly bonkers quality that made it watchable. Ray Winstone fighting Russell Crowe, together with those living stone creatures, had some entertainment value. By contrast, the deadly earnestness of Exodus: Gods and Kings, together with the lack of any dramatic tension, makes for an excruciatingly dull 150 minutes.

The story begins in Egypt, 1300 BCE, where a bunch of white guys have somehow bucked the regional tendency towards dark skin and rule the roost, keeping a large number of Hebrews as slaves. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) are brothers, though Ramses appears to have senior military ranking despite having less understanding of military tactics. On a trip into town Moses is appalled at the terrible way the Hebrew population are treated, but then it turns out that he himself is actually a Hebrew and not Ramses’ brother at all, a fact that is revealed by a local elder called Nun (Ben Kingsley).

When Ramses discovers the truth he banishes Moses to the wilderness. Sunburnt and thirsty, Moses finds water and rest at a tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere. At the watering hole some local blokes are trying to muscle in before a group of thirsty girls, but Moses flashes his imperial sword (not a euphemism) and the men back off. One of these girls has maintained a good moisturising regime and has brightened herself up with some eyeliner and lipstick; guess which girl Moses falls in love with? So Moses marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson).

When Gershom is nine, he tells Moses that climbing the nearby mountain is forbidden by God, because mum says so. So of course Moses tries to climb it. In the Old Testament such disobedience would normally be punished with a little mild genocide, but on this occasion Moses only suffers a falling rock to the head and thereafter receives visitations from God in the form of a young boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Malak tells Moses that he should journey back to Egypt to witness how bad the social conditions have become. Zipporah isn’t too keen on Moses disappearing on this quest, thinking – not unreasonably – that the whole visitation from God thing was just a delusion brought on by the blow to Moses’s noggin.

But back in Egypt, Moses discovers that Malak was right. The Hebrew slaves are suffering badly. Moses gets a group of followers together and trains them up as a fighting force. However, they can’t take on the army directly because they are so badly outnumbered. Therefore, Moses’ plan is to destroy provisions that are en route for the civilian population, thereby making them angry at the rulers and so fomenting instability. This is basically terrorism, of course, but maybe that’s OK when God’s on your side (because, obviously, God takes sides). As it happens, God (Malak) turns up and tells Moses that his methods will take far too long. “Watch this”, says God, “I’ll show you what real terrorism looks like”, and launches a series of attacks on the civilian population, not to mention the local animals. First of all, he wipes out all the fish in the sea. This is followed by plagues of frogs, lice, and flies. Moses visits Ramses and tells him that worse is to come unless he relents and frees the slaves. Ramses says that this is not economically viable, so then God starts to wipe out the livestock and visits plagues of boils and locusts upon the people, as well as hail, thunder, and darkness.

Even Moses starts to think that God is going a bit far when he reveals his plan to kill all newborn children, but God tells him that no punishment is harsh enough for those who have enslaved his chosen people for over 400 years. Nonetheless, Moses is able to mitigate the effects of the almighty’s genocidal rampage by advising the local Hebrews to smear lambs’ blood over their front doors as a protective agent. But God’s war crime works: when Ramses discovers that his young child is dead, he relents in the face of Biblical firepower and frees the slaves. Moses then entreats the Hebrews to follow him to the promised land and so they head off into the wilderness with him. By now, Ramses has got his act together again and sets off with his army in pursuit of Moses.

Moses gets a bit lost in the mountains and calls upon God for assistance. But guess what? Despite all the help that Moses gave God, God’s nowhere to be seen when Moses needs a bit of help with the old map-reading business. Maybe God tired himself out with all that genocide stuff and was having a rest. Still, somehow Moses gets his people to the Red Sea which – as we all know – conveniently parts in order that they can cross to the Holy land. Moses is reunited with his son and his wife who, when he rocks up at their home, is still wearing full make-up. No sooner has Moses returned when God gets him busy chiselling the ten commandments into lumps of stone. “I quite like that you don’t always agree with me” God tells Moses, thus revealing a bit of a soft spot that the Old Testament God doesn’t normally extend to dissenters.

And that’s about it story-wise. I’m not qualified to say how closely Exodus follows the Old Testament story of Moses. However, the tale presented here is seriously lacking in dramatic tension. Moreover, I found it difficult to care about Moses and his battle with Ramses. Christian Bale does a perfectly fine job as Moses, though the story doesn’t really allow him to shine. In fact, all of the actors are somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of CGI and 3D (perhaps the 2D version works better). It is as if Ridley Scott was so concerned about conveying visual epic-ness that the basics of storytelling got left behind. In some films 3D works really well. Gravity is probably the best example. But in Exodus the screen just seems too busy, which is a distraction.

Rating: 3/10

Lucy_(2014_film)_poster

Director: Luc Besson

Writer: Luc Besson

France 2014

Runtime: 89 mins

Scarlett Johansson develops superpowers in a movie that’s as enjoyable as it’s preposterous

Lucy is a big dumb action flick that features the world’s biggest female star right now. Ironically, though, the plot revolves around an intellectual conceit, the idea that people only use ten per cent of their brain’s capacity. As any psychologist can tell you this is baloney, but as long as you don’t mind overlooking such nonsense then Lucy is a lot of fun.

The story begins at a Taipei hotel where the title character finds herself coerced by a dodgy boyfriend into delivering a package to some terrifying Korean gangsters. At gunpoint Lucy ends up having some sort of packages inserted into her stomach, one of which bursts following an assault by a guard. The chemicals released into her bloodstream lead to some dramatic changes whereby Lucy begins to utilise previously dormant cerebral capacity. Fortuitously, these changes turn Lucy into a kick-ass warrior, enabling her to escape her captors.

Meanwhile, in the world of academia one Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is giving a presentation on the next steps in human evolution which, he tells us, will hinge upon accessing the brain’s hitherto untapped capabilities. Once again, scientists in the cinema audience will be holding their heads in their hands as the Professor’s powerpoint slides depict the entirely fallacious “Great Chain of Being” – the idea of an evolutionary progression from beings crawling on the ground to humans standing upright (contrary to the idea of linear progression we did not, for example, evolve from the Great Apes; rather we share a common ancestor with them).

Professor Norman speculates on what human abilities will be untapped if and when we are able to use twenty per cent of the brain’s capacity. Elsewhere, Lucy is already going beyond this figure. She is heading towards using one hundred per cent of her brain’s capacity, but the downside is that her body will not be able to survive beyond twenty-four hours. Whilst fending off the bad guys who are hunting her down Lucy needs to contact the Professor and find a way to transfer her newly-acquired knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

In essence, Lucy is The Matrix meets Lawnmower Man via 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scarlett Johansson’s is, as ever, a magnetically watchable presence. Her performance here as the otherworldly Lucy, who has abilities no-one else can even fathom, is not a million miles from the alien she plays in Under The Skin. Happily, the potential for the film to be overwhelmingly portentous is offset by some moments of fine humour. In one such moment Lucy is driving a car at breakneck speed through oncoming traffic. In the passenger seat a terrified police officer, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), cries out “You’ll get us killed!” Channeling her brain’s expanded wisdom, Lucy says in a throwaway manner: “We never really die”.

Lucy is a straightforward summer action movie. Don’t expect too much. Leave your brain at the door, sit back, and enjoy.

Rating: 7/10

Edge_of_Tomorrow_Poster

US/UK 2014

Director: Doug Liman

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie. Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, & Hiroshi Sakurazaka (novel)

Runtime: 113 mins

It’s déjà vu again in this cracking sci-fi action blockbuster

You have to hand it to Tom Cruise. At the age of 52 (I had to look that up) – my own age – he passes for about 10 years younger and still makes a more-than-credible action hero (apparently there is also another Mission Impossible on the way). His latest action role is that of Major William Cage in Edge of Tomorrow, a sci-fi blockbuster based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (in the novel Cage is just 20). Planet Earth has been invaded by alien creatures, known as “mimics” because of their ability to copy and respond to the human race’s military strategies. However, the development of a new high-tech military combat jacket has enabled Earth’s soldiers to put up a fight against the invaders.

Despite his rank, Cage is not a combat soldier – he does marketing and recruitment. He therefore protests when ordered to take a camera crew to the front line, gets knocked unconscious, and duly finds himself being kicked awake in the rank of Private. He is fitted with a combat jacket that he barely knows how to operate, dropped into the heat of battle (brilliantly depicted in all its terrifying confusion), and shortly afterwards gets killed by a mimic only to find himself being kicked awake again earlier that day. Cage repeatedly relives this day, his accumulation of experiences enabling him to live a little longer each time until eventually he has a battlefield encounter with Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt). She is literally the poster-girl for the military, those posters reading “Full Metal Bitch”, following her major victory over the aliens at Verdun. Vratasky knows why Cage is continually reliving his day, because she used to have the same time-travelling ability. Together, they must exploit Cage’s ability in order to find and destroy the alien “brain”, a collective supermind that controls each individual alien.

It is not too hard to spot that Edge of Tomorrow is a melange of movie influences, namely Groundhog Day, Source Code, and Starship Troopers. But whilst these influences are obvious, Edge of Tomorrow works in its own right and is actually great fun. The film does not take itself too seriously and the script is very witty in places, especially in charting Cage’s progress from bumbling PR man to seasoned soldier. When Vratasky explains the cause behind Cage’s time-travelling ability (or perhaps “affliction” might be a better word), she also explains that he must die every day until the alien brain has been destroyed. Accordingly, she occasionally has to despatch Cage herself once his fighting skills have enabled him to survive the aliens unscathed.

Although action flicks of this sort aren’t too much of a challenge for the acting skills of A-listers like Cruise and Blunt, they throw themselves into their roles and have a good onscreen chemistry. The only slight irritation I had was some slightly shaky camera work in one of the action-free interior scenes. Camera movement in this context was obtrusive and rather pointless, but fortunately it did not last long. More importantly, the 3D version worked well, as it so often does for films with lots of crashes and explosions. Filming took place in England, and for many British viewers there will be a certain piquancy to scenes of futuristic battle craft passing over the iconic chalk cliffs on England’s south coast, reminiscent as this is of the journey made by many aircraft during World War 2.

In terms of story, Edge of Tomorrow isn’t quite in the same league as Cruise’s earlier sci-fi outing Minority Report, but this is one of the best action blockbusters you are likely to see this year.

Rating: 8/10

Noah2014Poster

US 2014

Director: Darren Aronofsky

138 minutes

**This review is full of spoilers. If you know the bible well, this won’t matter, except to the extent that Noah the film isn’t entirely true to the story**

What to make of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah? Although not a believer myself, I was rather hoping to enjoy this film, just as I enjoy films about haunted houses despite not believing in ghosts. I admire Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins as actors, I enjoyed Darren Aronofsky’s previous two films (Black Swan and The Wrestler), and even the dumbest blockbusters can be fun. In anticipation that I might get more of a kick from wallowing in the film’s epicness rather than the story itself, I even coughed up a few extra Duane Eddy’s to see it at the IMAX. What a mistake. Noah’s problem is that it is just too epic for its own good. All subtlety is lost beneath a slew of CGI battles and a thundering soundtrack that, at times, would give Motörhead a run for their money in the volume stakes. There is absolutely no light and shade. Everything is treated so seriously that, by the time the Ark gets afloat it seems to be in imminent danger of sinking beneath the film’s overwhelming portentousness.

I am in no position to comment on how closely Noah follows the biblical story. Needless to say, some biblical literalists are already complaining that it doesn’t follow the “facts”. But really, who cares? We all know that “true stories” on the silver screen play fast and loose with the actualité, so I was happy just to take the story at face value. To begin with, after a bit of biblical scene-setting Noah starts seeing signs and having dreams that he realises is “the creator” (we never hear the word “God”) telling him about a coming disaster, a flood to punish mankind for their sins. The whole of humanity will be wiped out, but Noah will build an ark and save the world’s animals. Those animals are all birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, the dinosaurs having disappeared a few million years before. Exactly what the dinosaurs did to arouse God’s wrath is an issue left unexplored. The fish, presumably, are not endangered by the flood, and Noah does slip in a quick reference to them when recounting the story of how God made the world.

Noah starts to build the ark with the help  of a group of fearsome stone beings called The Watchers, who look like they were swept up off the cuttings room floor at one of the Lord of the Rings movies. The Watchers have this sob-story about how they were hunted and persecuted by humans, although this doesn’t quite add up because later on they turn out to be highly proficient at kicking human butt. Then Ray Winstone arrives on the scene playing Tubal-Cain, whose family have a bit of history with Noah’s family, and he warns Noah that he’s the daddy and that if Noah doesn’t get off his land there’s going to be trouble. Don’t worry, says Noah, I’m building this big ark to save my family from the terrible flood that’s going to kill you and your people. Then The Watchers start squaring up to Tubal-Cain and his mob, so they head off back home to make some more weapons.

Meanwhile, Noah’s adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) is in love with Shem (Douglas Booth), but she is unhappy because she can’t bear him children. While she’s out in the forest she bumps into Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who is obsessively hunting for the berries he loves, even though (or because) he hasn’t seen one in years. Methuselah waves his hand over Ila’s belly and makes her fertile. Quite where he got this magical ability, and why he can’t use it to grow berries, is never explained. Eventually, Methuselah finds a single red berry, which appears to have some symbolic meaning in relation to the red apple that Eve scrumped in the Garden of Eden (and which appears in Noah’s dreams from time to time).

Eventually, the great flood happens, whereupon Tubal-Cain’s vast army of men try to storm the ark. Curiously, there don’t seem to be any women among Tubal-Cain’s people, except for one girl that Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) tries to bring along for the ride. Sadly, she gets her foot caught in a trap and Noah won’t rescue her, which causes a strain in father-son relations. Anyway, The Watchers kick the crap out of Tubal-Cain’s men, except for Tubal-Cain himself who manages to stow away on the ark, albeit wounded. Tubal-Cain bides his time, building up his strength by scoffing the animals who, incidentally, have all been put to sleep (not in the euphemistic sense) by a magical potion that Noah has mixed. Tubal-Cain also gets some help from Ham, who is still mad at dad over the girl he left behind. Despite the fact the seas are in turmoil, and the ark is rectangular rather than boat-shaped, no-one gets seasick.

Eventually, there is a showdown between Tubal-Cain and Noah. Then Noah finds out that Ila is pregnant, which isn’t good news because God has determined that the extermination of the human race includes Noah and his family, but only once they have ensured the animals’ safety. He is even madder when he learns that Methuselah cured Ila of her barrenness, because his action constituted interference with God’s plans. It wasn’t Ila’s fault, says Noah’s wife Naahmeh (Jennifer Connelly), I asked Methuselah to do it. However, this doesn’t stop Noah from vowing to kill Ila’s child if it is a girl, because a girl could procreate with young Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), who is destined to be the last human left alive. If you can be bothered to think about it, this does of course raise the usual philosophical questions about how – if God is all-powerful – he was unable to stop Methuselah from acting against his will.

So far, so ridiculous. Nonetheless, throughout all this Russell Crowe is always watchable. He gives a very strong performance, albeit one which is not dissimilar from some of his previous roles. Crowe is best in the scenes prior to the Ark disappearing out into the oceans, when he has the opportunity to be quite animated. Once on the ark, he increasingly adopts the countenance of someone introspecting on all manner of troubling thoughts, a role he has been playing ever since 1999’s The Insider. However, when Noah learns of Ila’s pregnancy he starts to become quite megalomaniacal, and I felt that Crowe’s performance threatened to go just a little over the top at this point. Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah was his usual hypnotic screen presence, and Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain was fearsomely excellent.

However, herein lays a problem. These three roles are the most significant for the film and are played to the hilt by the actors in question. They completely dominate the female figures. The various female performers do their best, but just cannot compete. Jennifer Connelly fares best out of the female actors, but being required to play a – mostly – dutiful wife against a husband who is enacting God’s will doesn’t give much opportunity to shine. The person who loses out most in the acting stakes is Emma Watson. She is good in the more intimate scenes, particularly when it is just her and Connelly, but her performance is painfully exposed in the more expansive scenes, especially in the presence of Crowe. Repeatedly, she does that slight movement of the eyebrows, and looking into the distance, familiar from the Harry Potter films, which is meant to indicate concern. In these scenes she is about as wooden as the ark itself. In a broader sense the film also doesn’t do Watson any favours. For someone who is presumably keen to escape the Harry Potter label, it can’t help when, at intervals, a large CGI-ed bird swoops into a landscape shot and begins flapping furiously. I couldn’t help thinking that here was a bird on its way to deliver a message to Hogwarts.

Story-wise, Noah calls to mind one of those atheistic Facebook memes that takes a bible story (sometimes the whole bible story), strips it of all archaic and flowery language, and summarises it in a few succinct sentences that would fit on a postcard. Seen this way, all God’s cruelties and inconsistencies – at least as recorded by the authors of the Old Testament – are thrown into sharp relief for comic effect. At the end of Noah, the ark and its inhabitants are all washed up in the middle of nowhere. Rather like the film itself.

Rating: 3/10

Image

Director: Scott Waugh

Running Time: 130 minutes

Based on a computer game, Need for Speed is of course entirely preposterous, but none the less enjoyable for that. Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul plays Toby Marshall, a garage owner and participant in illegal road races. After he serves time for a crime he did not commit, he is determined to expose the true culprit, his old college rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). In order to do so (although it is never clear exactly how this will help), he must take part in the De Leon road race organised by “The Monarch”, some sort of video jockey played by Michael Keaton. The race itself has a £2 million prize for the winner, although quite how The Monarch has not attracted the attention of the law for organising an illegal race is also a question left unanswered. But never mind – the key thing is that Toby has only 45 hours to drive across several states in order to participate.

Any road trip worth its salt has to be made by a mismatched couple, of course, at which point enters Julia (Imogen Poots). She is a posh-speaking English rose who Toby initially disdains, until he discovers that she has petrol running through her veins. The two of them head south at breakneck speed, with the police in pursuit (as movie law dictates), not to mention Dino’s henchmen.

In essence, Need for Speed is a series of races and chases stitched together by a plot that barely makes sense, and populated by comic book characters with V8 engines for brains. The whole thing is ridiculous, and for the first twenty minutes or so I thought I had made a mistake. However, once we got past the point where Toby is released from prison the film really started to take off for me and I was able to relax and enjoy it. In fact, it is fair to say that the more ludicrous things get, and the wilder the action, the more the film succeeds as a piece of pure popcorn entertainment.

Rating: 7/10