Matt Damon

Suburbicon

07/11/17

A recent viewing of the trailer for Suburbicon led me to observe that the film looked ‘Coenesque’ – so it comes as no great surprise to learn that is actually based around an abandoned 1980s Coen Brothers screenplay, which has been reworked by director, George Clooney and by screenwriter, Grant Heslov. Fans of the brothers grim, may notice a passing similarity to the plot of one of their finest offerings, Fargo. Having said that, this film steers its own course and certainly has plenty to recommend it.

It’s the 1950s and the titular Los Angeles community styles itself as a kind of dream home for middle America, proudly boasting that in its idyllic realm, there is no crime and everybody is welcome – that is until the Mayers family takes up residence. The Mayers , you see, are African-Americans and it’s soon made abundantly clear to them that the all-compassing welcome doesn’t actually apply to them. (It’s interesting to note that this part of the story is based on a real life family, the Myers, who suffered similar problems when they moved into a residence in Charlotteville Virginia in 1957). What starts as a few silent protesters balefully watching their home steadily builds until things degenerate into an all-out riot.

But while everyone’s focus is on the Meyers’ house, it’s clear that something very unpleasant is happening right next door. Young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is woken one night by his father, Gardner (a beefed up Matt Damon) who tells him that a couple of intruders are in the house and he is to do whatever they tell him. As Nicky watches dumbfounded, Gardner, his crippled wife, Rose and her twin sister, Margaret, (both played by Julianne Moore) are all chloroformed to unconsciousness, shortly before he is given the same terrifying treatment. When he wakes up, he learns that Rose has died – and pretty soon, his Aunt Margaret moves into the house to lend her support. Nicky gradually begins to understand that things are not quite as they seem…

One of Suburbicon’s strengths is that much of the story is seen from Nicky’s point of view and the growing realisation that he is living in a poisonous environment is expertly handled. His burgeoning friendship with young Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) is also nicely reined in, just two young boys getting amiably along, the message all the stronger for not being hammered home with a mallet. This being a Coen storyline, there are of course a couple of memorable villains (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler, doing a kind of demented Laurel and Hardy routine) and there’s a nice cameo by Oscar Isaac as a snoopy insurance investigator.

As the story accelerates towards its conclusion, we head into Pardoner’s Tale territory, as everyone homes in on the lure of a huge insurance payout – but Nicky (and the Meyers family) are the only characters here who really deserve our compassion, and the film kept me rooting for them right up to the end.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Great Wall

23/02/17

The Great Wall is an American/Chinese co-production and it’s reputedly the most expensive film ever made in China. It’s plain to see where all the money went. As you might expect from Zhang Yimou, director of House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this is all about spectacle, depicted on a gigantic scale. There are epic battle scenes galore and the recreation of the wall itself is absolutely jaw-dropping. A pity then, that the storyline is built on rather less robust foundations. It’s rambling, to say the least, at times quite nonsensical and it’s staggering to think that it took three screenwriters (one of them the very talented Tony Gilroy) to put it all together.

William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a couple of soldiers of fortune who have ventured deep into the wilds of China in search of the fabled black powder. (Not a hallucinogenic drug but the stuff you blow things up with). After a run-in with an unseen adversary, they are taken captive by an army who’s task it is to defend the Great Wall against the Taotie, waves of ravening lizard like beasts who for reasons best known to themselves, regenerate and attack the wall every sixty years. When the newcomers prove themselves in a skirmish against the beasts, their lives are spared and Commander Lin (Tian Jing) starts to flutter her eyelashes at William, initiating a deepening (but perfectly chaste) relationship between them. Meanwhile, another captive, Ballard, (Willem Dafoe) who has lived behind the wall for twenty five years has devised an elaborate escape plan and hopes that William and Tovar will join him…

To be honest, nobody is going to watch this for the convincing plot. If you like Zhang Yimou’s unrivalled visuals then the chances are you will find this as aesthetically thrilling as I did. But it also has to be said that brilliant though the CGI beasties are, there are simply way too many of them. Half a dozen fearsome creatures would have had way more impact than the millions that we see swarming over every battle scene. Clearly the director does not subscribe to the old adage that ‘less is more.’ And I might also add that none of the Taotie are quite as fearsome as Damon’s attempt at an English accent… at least, I think it’s meant to be English. Or possibly Irish?

An important slice of American-Chinese cooperation or a somewhat flawed attempt at a credible blockbuster? You choose.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Jason Bourne

Unknown

30/07/16

The Bourne franchise has been through some interesting twists and turns since its inception in 2002. Created by director, Doug Limon, the first instalment was successful enough to engender two assured sequels, both directed by Paul Greengrass, at which point its influence could be seen in several other films, most notably in Casino Royale, where the Bond series could almost have been accused of plagiarising Greengrass’s frantic, shakey-cam style. When Matt Damon and Greengrass both announced they’d had enough, The Bourne Legacy attempted to fill the gap with Jeremy Renner stepping into the lead role, but it failed to do the kind of numbers that the previous films had achieved and many people thought that it had run its course.

Now, despite all their protestations, Damon and Greengrass are back at the helm and the big question on everyone’s lips is ‘can they pull it off a third time?’

The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ There may not be much depth to these films but they do grip like a steel vice as they race relentlessly from one chase to another, while all the supporting characters gleefully double cross each other at every opportunity. This is kinetic cinema at its most compelling. It puts you right in the driver’s seat and it’s an enthralling, exciting ride.

When we first meet Jason in this adventure, he’s been reduced to illegal boxing to make ends meet, something he does with his customary mixture of skill and melancholy – but when Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) comes back into his life, it soon becomes evident that Bourne is not yet finished with Treadstone and it is not finished with him. Reptillian CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is still pulling the strings and now he has ambitious new recruit Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to help him engineer the capture of his most elusive enemy. He also has The Asset (Vincent Cassel) hiding behind every corner with a high-powered rifle, ready to blow Bourne’s brains across the screen should he try to evade the elaborate traps that have been set for him by the powers-that-be. And just to add a touch of contemporary relevance, there’s a Mark Zuckerberg-like entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) who’s multi-billion dollar social network empire has, it appears, been built on rather dodgy foundations.

Stir it all together with a selection of pulverising car chases, brutal punch ups and vicious shoot-outs and we have another pulse pounding instalment of one of the most successful franchises in film history. If you liked the other films, you’ll enjoy this one. You might argue that Jason Bourne offers nothing new to the established formula but when it’s put together as brilliantly as this, you’ll get no complaints from me.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Martian

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27/09/15

With The Martian, Ridley Scott takes us back into outer space. Given that his previous excursion in that direction was the much anticipated, but decidedly underwhelming Prometheus, there are many out there who didn’t have great hopes for this movie. Happily, their fears are unfounded, because this is the best Ridley Scott movie in a very long time.

Based on Andy Weir’s recent bestseller, it’s the story of Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who during a manned mission to Mars is caught up in a violent storm and knocked for six by a flying projectile. After a desperate search for him, his fellow crew members, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) come to the assumption that he must be dead and make a hasty exit in the direction of earth. But Watney isn’t dead. He wakes up several hours later with a nasty wound to his stomach and the awful realisation that he is totally alone on a planet that is millions of miles away from home. When the people at NASA finally learn of his situation, the decision is taken not to inform the other members of his crew of his plight for fear they will ‘lose concentration’ on their journey home. Watney is, to put it mildly, in a bit of a pickle. It will be four years before a rescue mission can me mounted and he only has enough food for around a month. If he’s to survive, he will have to (to use his own words) ‘Science the shit out of this.’

What follows is a fascinating and captivating couple of hours as Watney works out a complex plan to stay alive, starting with the idea of growing potatoes planted in the packaged human waste from the expedition’s toilet. Meanwhile, there’s an even more serious problem. The only music available to listen to is Lewis’s collection of disco hits circa 1980 – he may go stark raving mad before help arrives.

Damon is always an appealing performer and he’s perfect for the wisecracking, plucky Mark Watney. You’re rooting for him from the word ‘go,’ and as his position becomes ever more precarious, you feel every setback as keenly as he does. As the story moves on and his crew mates finally learn of his situation, proceedings metamorphose into a complex rescue mission, which results in an absolutely nail biting climax. What’s more, there are all the tropes we’ve come to expect from Ridley Scott – magnificent cinematography (with Wadi Rum in Jordan standing in for Mars), a fabulous soundtrack utilising the delights of Abba and vintage David Bowie, plus the absolute conviction that no matter how far fetched the story becomes, its backed up by a wealth of detail, enough to convince you that this really could happen. It’s ironic that I’m reviewing this film on the very day that NASA will announce a ‘major discovery on Mars.’ I appreciate that Scott always puts aside a huge budget for publicity, but that may be going too far!

Scott, by the way, is pressing on with his production of Prometheus Two, so he isn’t quite giving up on outer space just yet. But The Martian is definitely a keeper. Watch it on the big screen and yes, for once, it’s actually worth booking for the 3D showing, because those vast, alien landscapes really are out of this world.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Monuments Men

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21/11/14

Based (rather loosely, according to all reports) on a true story, The Monuments Men is actually built around an intriguing premise, the exploits of a team of art historians, who in the final days of the 2nd World War, are charged with the task of rescuing some of the great works of art appropriated by the Nazis. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and his veteran team undergo basic training (a piece of cake apparently) and then head off to a series of exotic locations in search of Hitler’s pilfered masterpieces, while the war rumbles on, rather half-heartedly, in the background.

Handsomely mounted and featuring a cast to die for –  Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchette, Bill Murray… (I could go on), the overwhelming mystery here is why the resulting movie is so fatally uninvolving. Perhaps the blame lies with the lukewarm script by Clooney and Grant Heslov, which barely touches upon the irony of men giving their lives to save art (one short scene in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) says it more eloquently than this entire movie does) or perhaps it’s the fact that the story never manages to generate any real fire in its belly and becomes a series of ‘almost did’ events. Damon’s character for instance, almost has a romantic liaison with Blanchette’s art historian, but instead, does the decent thing and goes home. Hugh Bonneville as a disgraced historian, who given a second chance decides to be a hero, almost manages to raise a tear but, not quite. Likewise when Damon’s character stands on an unexploded land mine, an opportunity to generate some genuine suspense if ever there was one, the device turns out to be a dud.

Ultimately, this is a decent enough attempt at telling a story, yet there remains the distinct conviction that the story must surely have been grittier and more dynamic than this and consequently, The Monuments Men should be filed under L for  lost opportunities.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney