Monday 30 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #5

I haven't posted any reviews to Apocalypse Later this week, but I did get an outstanding Weird Wednesday review staged and ready to go this week. I'm having a blast with that project and this one will amaze.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site:

Operator (2015)

Director: Brothers Olson
Stars: Luke Goss, Mischa Barton, Michael Pare and Ving Rhames
The core idea of this film is a good one and I appreciated it a great deal. The great movie that it surely will become one day merely isn’t this one.

We’re focused on a broken relationship. Pamela Miller is a 911 dispatch operator, who started divorce proceedings after her alcoholic husband left their daughter, Cassie, alone in the house on the night that it was burgled and burned to the ground. That Cassie made it out was none of his doing. Jeremy Miller is a cop, now five months sober, who wants nothing more than to atone for his mistakes and be with his family. That difficult relationship is highlighted quickly but just as quickly ignored because the events we’re about to watch unfold tie them together professionally and they both do fine. This had the most obvious happy ending of any film I think I’ve ever seen.

Those events involve an ambitious crime and an equally ambitious attempt to divert all professional attention away from it by kidnapping Cassie, tormenting Pamela and having her move Jeremy around from location to location avoiding the big picture. Of course, at some point he figures it out and decides to do something to save the day that clearly isn’t what the mastermind at the core of the film wants.

As I mentioned, it’s a great idea and I’d love to see it done justice, but this fails on more fronts than can be comfortably counted. So let’s try counting them.

One is that the criminal mastermind is Ving Rhames, whose rather memorable dulcet tones are utterly unmistakeable even through the sound manipulation software he’s using. While we know it’s Rhames, Pamela doesn’t and that’s the ace that this house of cards is built on.

A bunch tie to little issues that can’t be ignored. After Jeremy is injured by a truck jackknifing right over his police car, his partner lets him climb into the empty truck first. Then they leave the scene, contrary even to procedure that’s quoted in dialogue. Why would patsies be paid off in clues? How come the bad guys can’t even shoot as well as Imperial Stormtroopers? Hostages turn from chaotic to well behaved on the turn of a dime. And back again.

Perhaps the worst is the fact that Pamela works in a small call center, sits at someone else’s terminal (who wants it back, no less) and ignores hours of 911 calls because Rhames keeps her on the line. Yet those 911 calls don’t get automatically routed to other dispatchers, nobody notices what she’s going through and she clearly doesn’t have any mechanism at her disposal to tell anyone else. That’s nuts, except in the wacky world of Hollywood plot convenience, which does descend as far as outrageously clichéd moments like a car chase on a deserted rural road suddenly running into a tractor coming the other way. For a great core idea, this is a horribly written script.

Rhames does better here than he did in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, but that wasn’t difficult. It gives him a good opportunity to sound villainous and, on that front, he succeeds, but he’s hardly the commanding mastermind that so many other Hollywood actors could have been. He’s also so soothing that I actually started blotting him out at points. That’s not good. Maybe he should take up a job DJ’ing smooth jazz.

At least he’s better than Michael Paré, who sleepwalks through this film so poorly that it takes us about five seconds of his screentime to see through his every facade. He’s made over a hundred films since his debut in 1983 as the lead in Eddie and the Cruisers, but I truly hope that he never gave a performance more lackluster than this in any of them. He phones this part in so relentlessly that I wonder if he had some sort of grudge against someone important behind the project.

At least the Millers are decent. I’ve finally got over the stunning discovery that the glorious Prince Nuada in Hellboy II: The Golden Army was played by one of the brothers in frickin’ Bros. Maybe the fascinating chameleon Donnie Wahlberg turned into began to calm my objections over boy band divas thinking they could act, but Goss finished them off. I’ve seen him in a few films since then and he’s far better than he ought to be. Sadly he’s not as good as he ought to be here, fine as the cop but less so as the husband, noting the caveat that the script really didn’t help him in that regard at all, rendering him watchable but also forgettable.

Mischa Barton gets the opportunities as his estranged wife and she does try to do something with them, leaving her easily the best of the major actors in the cast. However, while the script gives her plenty to do in order to shine, it doesn’t provide much coherent grounding for her to build on, so we have trouble sometimes differentiating between her acting and her situation.

I wanted to like this, because of the idea, and I’d still like to see it done justice. Unfortunately it warrants an audience that doesn’t know what a plot convenience is and is scarily happy to suspend disbelief. That isn’t me.

Momentum (2015)

Director: Stephen S Campanelli
Stars: Olga Kurylenko, James Purefoy and Morgan Freeman
At least Momentum is honest. Rather than conjure up a lackluster plot to pretend at depth, it pretty much ignores that one might even be needed. It’s an action film that has no interest in anything except action, which it showcases as stylishly as it can. If that’s what you want, you should enjoy this. If you want more, like a purpose for it to actually exist, you’re going to be rather frustrated at how little it cares.

Before the opening credits, Morgan Freeman calls for a war. After them, we see a heist, perpetrated by people in futuristic black outfits with coloured LEDs on them. They could be advanced cycling suits with added voice changers. They want into a vault that’s protected by a space age security system. Out of a wall pops a hexagonal safety deposit box, like this is a technological hive. Out of that pops a bunch of diamonds. This is incredibly cool and just as incredibly unrealistic.

These robbers get away, taking with them the diamonds and the corpse of the one with a temper. They plan on landing $30,000 each for this job, which doesn’t seem like much, especially with this level of tech and with the destruction of a nice car to cover their tracks. But hey, Hollywood, right? Well no, this is actually a South African feature that merely added Morgan Freeman to the cast to give it a Hollywood flavour. As a clichéd corrupt senator, he gets a few scenes back in the States but never interacts with the rest of the cast except by phone.

If this sounds like a plot, ignore it. After about five minutes, the female robber finds herself on the run from an infuriatingly calm employee of the senator’s and we settle down for a long chase. On occasion the plot makes a half-hearted attempt at reasserting itself, but we mostly just ignore it because at least the chase is a lot of fun.

There are problems with it. Part of that initial escape ironically involves a character mentioning how he’s seen some of this before in movies, right before we watch Alex, the lady being chased, reverse down a long spiral ramp to get away from a car going forwards. Yes, I’ve seen that in the movies before too, but it’s done very well. Even though I’m not a fan of the sort of rapid impressionistic editing that this uses to build tension, that’s mostly because it’s not usually done as well as it is here. There are great little details here too, like how Alex exits over the top of a security guard’s car and through his booth to avoid the traffic spikes. I also like how this chase ends, at least the driven part of it, which is handled particularly well. So maybe we can ignore the problems and settle back with our popcorn.

What we realise when we get to this point is that we’ve spent more time watching a chase scene than we have watching the actual story. And every time we jump to an actual plot detail, such as when Alex turns up at the remaining robber’s place ahead of the ‘cleaners’ and rings her dead partner’s wife, we’re thrown right back into the chase. All we really need to know is that this isn’t about diamonds, it’s about a drive, a clichéd but suitable MacGuffin of the piece.

I like Alex. She kicks royal ass but she’s not an invincible machine; she has a brain as well as brawn and she’s able to use both in a mostly believable fashion. She’s played by Olga Kurylenko, who had a strong run about eight years ago with Hitman, Max Payne and Quantum of Solace (yes, she’s a Bond girl) and clearly she’s only got better. While this isn’t a great film, it’s certainly a great showcase for her.

I also like that she’s not the only woman with impact in the film. That dead partner’s wife, not a crook in the slightest, gets to strut her stuff too, such as when she beats one bad guy to death with a Tonka truck. She’s only in the film to be a mother defending her child and she does that superbly.

The man she’s defending her child from and who chases Alex throughout the film is Mr Washington, the senator’s man in Capetown. This role was originally intended for Vincent Cassel, who would surely have handled it very differently to James Purefoy, who is infuriatingly calm and polite throughout. It’s a great approach for him to take and I appreciated how well he did it.

Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman and he does precisely what you might expect from him in a darker role than usual, but he only does it for a few brief scenes which are really inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. He could have been cut out of the film entirely and we wouldn’t have noticed. This is really all about the cat and mouse between of Alex and Mr Washington, an oddly sympathetic bad girl versus the worse guys.

If you’re going to watch it, watch it for the action, the strong (in more ways than one) performance of Olga Kurylenko and for the visuals, which are slick indeed for an indie feature. While the film is South African, it’s a Canadian, Glen MacPherson, who was responsible for the cinematography. Looking at his credits, I see that he’s done good work in bad films before, like the more recent Resident Evil movies. I should check out some of the good films in his filmography to see how he shines in them. Was that supposed to be my takeaway here? I don’t think so.

The Transporter Refueled

Director: Camille Delamarre
Stars: Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson and Loan Chabanol
I’m a big fan of The Transporter, the original 2002 movie, which helped establish Jason Statham as an action movie leading man. The two sequels were fun too, though not up to the same standard, but they were all about Statham and how effortlessly cool he was as Frank Martin, a sort of take on what Steve McQueen might be doing if he were alive and young today.

When Luc Besson’s company, EuropaCorp, wanted to make a new Transporter trilogy, they naturally aimed for Statham but terms couldn’t be met and so Ed Skrein was given the unenviable task of attempting to fill the skin of Frank Martin. He isn’t up to the task, but he did grow on me somewhat during the film and I’ll happily take a glance at films five and six when they’re made.

This reboot is very much in the traditional Besson style, focusing on the attempts of a team of prostitutes to rob their Russian boss blind and destroy his empire in the process. He’s Arkady Karasov and he’s the ruthless crime boss you might expect, beginning the film in 1995 by machine gunning a row of whores and then replacing them with a new row from the van following him. So much for West African pimps on the French Riviera; now Karasov owns that business.

Fifteen years on, some of his girls still want revenge, led by Anna, who was there in 1995 as one of the new girls. She starts off as she means to go on, shooting Karasov’s accountant in the head, then follows up by emptying his safe deposit box in a neat little bank robbery that lands her a little black book that sets up the entire rest of her plan and our picture.

It also brings the Transporter into the main thrust of the story. Anna hired him to be her getaway driver but, knowing that he’d bail immediately because she broke his cardinal rules, took the opportunity to kidnap his father first. Martin plays along with Anna’s plans in order to save his father, but things aren’t quite that simple. There are a number of twists still to come and they’re handled pretty well for the most part. Certainly they aren’t the biggest problem that the film has to deal with.

Ed Skrein isn’t bad as Frank Martin, but he tries way too hard to be as cool as Statham, who didn’t have to try at all, and he can’t manage it. The film tries way too hard too, carefully notching off all the things we need to know about Frank Martin, his job as the Transporter and the rules he follows while doing it, just in case we hadn’t seen the previous three films. It’s too clinical and too forced a reboot.

What impresses most early on is the car chase, which is a good thing because this is a Transporter movie, after all. The Luc Besson crowd really don’t mess around when it comes to car chases, and while this is far from the best that he’s ever put his name to, it’s still a bundle of spectacular fun.

The other early positive is Ray Stevenson, who plays Frank Martin Sr, who has just retired from the British government on a €790 a month pension for being a ‘water salesman’ (read ‘spy’). He’s a charismatic foil for his rigid son and he provides most of the fun early on that doesn’t revolve around beautiful women or driving scenes.

And so on we go. I like the confidence that Skrein has, whether he’s taking on six idiots who want to steal his car, his home ground of precision driving or having to leap into a different persona at the drop of a hat to work a job with Anna. There’s one great scene in which he sets his car into motion with three girls in it, promptly gets out and fights his way forward until leaping back into the driver’s seat at just the right moment. It’s exactly what we want from a Transporter movie.

The choreography is decent, which is no surprise. Given the last few movies I’ve seen, including Taken 3, which was another EuropaCorp feature this year, I was impressed by how damaged people get in this film when doing things that really ought to damage people, such as Frank taking on four tough guys at a club in a fight that ends up with solid metal weapons.

The driving is great, including a gorgeous escape from an airport which is that rare example of a clearly unbelievable stunt that still looks like someone actually performed it for real. The style is fine, including the awesome choice to put three girls in matching disguises in a number of scenes. The story is a stretch, of course, but it’s a fun stretch with only a few annoying plot conveniences that should have been tidied up before shooting commenced.

Sure, we need to suspend disbelief a number of times, in the holy tradition of action movies, but this flows a lot better than I expected it to. If the next film can build on this and Ed Skrein can find a way to loosen up and play the Transporter more naturally, it could have a good chance to start carving out its own legacy and not merely fail in comparison to the previous trilogy.

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